The Cost of Living


Kakuzu stared down at his three students as they all stood on the edge of the tree line, watching people stream through the giant doors into Konoha's central arena. It was the day of the third round of the Chūnin Exams, and Naruto and Fū were expected to be on the battlefield within the next 15 minutes. There was silence among the quartet as all the spectators – foreign dignitaries, their guards, civilians, and ninja of various rank from different countries – filed to their seats; despite the time constraint, all three Genin were waiting for the bounty hunter to inevitably break the silence.

"You all know your roles?" he finally asked, though they all knew that it was a statement and not a question; each of them nodded. "Good. Then it is time to take your positions. We will meet up at the first opportunity," he directed at Naruto and Fū.

"Got it," confirmed Naruto. Kakuzu's gaze lingered on him for an extra moment – intense green eyes boring holes into his student – before he turned around and led Harō towards the entrance. The cobalt-haired boy whispered a hasty, "Good luck" as he passed, but Naruto was too focused on his teacher's last expression to respond. 'Screw this up and it will be the last thing you do,' threatened those eyes.

I won't, Naruto promised. Fū nudged him gently, prodding him into motion. The touch was enough to startle the blond from his rumination, and the two Jinchūriki set off for the competitors' entrance. Naruto thought that perhaps there had been some other message in Kakuzu's expression – pride he almost called it, if Kakuzu had ever shown any pride in the blond's accomplishments – but decided to let the gesture go in favor of focusing on the task ahead.

It wasn't necessary for him to win, of course (because promotions meant little to rogue ninja), but the thrill of victory – the idea of proving himself to Kakuzu (and to a lesser extent, to Harō and Fū) – definitely gave him motivation to do his best in the upcoming fight. Winning against Neji was practically a necessity for his ego.

The battlefield, Naruto realized upon entering, was huge. Walls towering hundreds of feet high enclosed the entire arena, and several step-laddered grandstands overlooked the ground from high above. Trees rimmed the inside of the arena, providing cover and protection in the otherwise barren field. Standing in the center of the grass and dirt area were all the other contestants, save Uchiha Sasuke. Fū and Naruto approached the proctor – a plain man wearing a bandana hitae-ate backwards and with a long senbon gripped between his teeth – and took their places next to Nara Shikamaru.

If Naruto stood at a slight enough angle that he shielded Fū from Gaara's vision, neither Jinchūriki commented on it.

After another 10 minutes had passed, the Konoha Jōnin serving as their proctor cleared his throat. "My name is Shiranui Genma, and I'll be presiding over this final round of the Chūnin Exams. This," he said, pulling out a piece of paper which displayed the bracket matches, "shows the match-ups for the competition. Are there any questions?" When he was greeted with silence, Genma raised his voice and announced loudly, "We will now begin the third round of the Chūnin Exams. Will Aburame Shino and Sai please remain on the battlefield? Everyone else is free to go up to the viewing balcony in the meantime," he told the Genin in a normal voice.

The other competitors moved towards the stairwell and took the steps up. They emerged in a small, open viewing balcony high upon one of the stadium walls, closed off by a waist-high railing. The two Suna-nin took position in one corner, followed by the remaining Konoha-nin and then Naruto and Fū on the other side. Far below, the figures that were Shino and Sai stood about 100 feet apart, Genma placed in-between them.

At the senbon-chewing Jōnin's signal, Sai immediately moved away, creating more distance between himself and Shino. The Aburame, he knew, were a clan devoted almost completely to using the bugs within their bodies as their primary attack mechanism. Strategically, putting more space between the two was a less than ideal move, allowing the bug-nin to take advantage of the distance with his long-range attacks.

Except that Sai was also a long distance fighter, with a healthy background in swordsmanship and physical combat that Shino probably didn't have. As far as the fight's outcome, Sai would have no problem emerging victorious…after thoroughly testing his opponent's skill, of course.

Originally, the ink-user had been mildly surprised that he was even still participating in the Chūnin Exams. After the preliminaries, he had met with Danzō and explained Uchiha Sasuke's progress and movements in detail, per his mission parameters. When he had inquired how to forfeit the final round of the exams without raising suspicion, Danzō had instead told him to compete.

The reason, once Sai had time to actually digest the logic, was really quite simple. ROOT was – for all intents and purposes – a stagnant, defunct organization. There was only so much growth a group could go through while remaining underground, and recruiting opportunities needed to be taken when they presented themselves.

It was a happy coincidence that Sai's opponent was Aburame Shino.

ROOT's teachings embraced the idea that emotions were the path to destruction. By forfeiting one's feelings, no internal conflicts would get in the way of completing a mission. As a clan, the Aburame adhered to a very similar set of guidelines, indulging their faith within the realms of logic and clear-mindedness. The fact that they were renowned, if not slightly feared, as a powerful clan – and had even overwhelmed their rivals, the bee-using Kamizuru clan of Iwagakure – lent credit to the effectiveness of their creed.

Apparently there was enough similarity to ROOT's philosophy to pique Danzō's interest in the clan heir. Though ROOT trained children from a young age in order to effectively quash their emotions, its leader obviously saw potential in bringing older Aburame into their fold.

Hence Sai's new mission: to test the capabilities of the Aburame heir and reveal the extent of his capacity. It was a mission he would complete to the best of his abilities.

To win, he would eventually have to move to close combat range. In the meantime, he would test the Aburame's skill with his kikaichū and long-range tactics. Sai pulled out the scroll he used in conjunction with his ninjutsu and unraveled the first six inches. "Chōjū Giga," he intoned, scribbling across the parchment with his brush. A bird emerged from the scroll, spread its six-foot wingspan, and allowed its creator to jump aboard as it took flight.

The aviary creature wasn't the largest Sai could produce, but its purpose wasn't battle; it merely needed to provide Shino a larger, more impressive target than Sai himself to expose his talent. Now, thought the ROOT agent, gazing with emotionless eyes at his opponent from above, what will you do?

From his vantage point in the viewing balcony, Naruto watched with detached curiosity as Aburame Shino launched his clan's parasitic insects at Sai. To Naruto, who had been brought up by Kakuzu to recognize some of the subtleties other ninja displayed in battle (to simplify killing targets when bounty hunting), it was apparent that the Uchiha look-alike was holding back. The guy's name practically screamed 'alias' as it was.

Why didn't any of them have surnames to cement their duplicity?

The main question he couldn't answer was why. Assuming that Sai was a high-ranking operative posing as a Genin, participating in the Chūnin Exams past the point where it was a team exercise was pointless. It was practically the same situation Harō had found himself in during the preliminaries. There was no logical reason to continue fighting that Naruto could come up with.

Down below, a swarm of kikaichū shot up from the ground and surrounded Sai, nearly spearing his bird in half.

Not that their actions mattered too much, Naruto decided. What the higher-ups of the Hidden Leaf did with their own ninja had little effect on his team's mission. He had his own issues to deal with.

Kakuzu's sudden, intense focus on his training, for instance.

The bounty hunter, for how much he had taken Naruto under his wing, had never really 'trained' Naruto. At least, not with the same intensity, focus, and personal investment as he had in the past two weeks. When Naruto was younger, Kakuzu had taken a more active role in his learning, probably to make sure he was grounded in the basics; now that he was older, Naruto chalked that earlier time up to the fact that he had been completely inept in the ways of the ninja, and thus was a liability. Building up a five-year-old from scratch often required patience and a firm, guiding hand.

Unfortunately, Kakuzu was slightly lacking in both those areas.

Naruto didn't exactly blame the rogue Taki-nin. From what little he knew of Kakuzu's past – and that was essentially limited to the one outburst the man had had right before Naruto had gotten Jiongu – those personality traits (or lack thereof) were to be expected. He guessed that his mentor had lived by himself for at least 60 years, brooding in a miserly, narcissistic cycle for the entirety of that time. It was to be expected that Kakuzu had no patience for other people.

Considering that, Naruto was amazed that he had escaped with as few scars (both physical and psychological) that he had.

Still, the blond could remember the phases of Kakuzu's training regime and how the nukenin had filtered himself from each step. At eight-years-old, Kakuzu had taught him the ways of the bounty hunter and, for the most part, left the boy to his own devices with his advancement, trusting that he would teach himself the necessities. Before that time, Naruto had swapped between learning what was deemed 'normal' topics such as math, history, and science from Ryo, and being taught ninja basics – taijutsu forms, chakra theory, secrets of the Hidden Villages – from Kakuzu. It was the longest amount of consecutive time the Jinchūriki could remember actually learning from the man, and he had been unrelenting with the child's education. Stupidity and ignorance were traits that Kakuzu refused to accept in his pupil.

Naruto scoffed. Even when Kakuzu tutored him in the necessities, he still half-assed it by pawning him off on another person half the time. Time is money, he quoted snidely, the voice again sounding suspiciously like Kakuzu. …I can't even get away from him in my own head. He supposed it was the mark of a good teacher that the lesson stuck with him after all this time, though.

Sai threw a kick at Shino's torso, then immediately backed away as the Aburame burst into a cloud of angry kikai.

Coinciding with the mercenary lessons was a long stint of elemental training. Kakuzu had informed him of the basics of Fūton chakra and ordered him to practice. The man had then disappeared for several months, returned for a week to see the blond's progress with cutting a leaf, and then left again. Following his next return, Kakuzu oversaw Naruto's next four months of training in several basic Wind Release techniques and extra physical conditioning (including the infrequent spar). Instead of advising his pupil, the former Taki-nin had stood by silently and forced the blond to go through the motions of practicing his ninjutsu, only giving input when he deemed it necessary. Naruto had been expected to learn it all by himself through sheer trial and error.

Kuchiyose no Jutsu and Jiongu had both gone the same way, with Kakuzu instructing him in how to perform the hand seals or what the benefits of each technique was, but nothing beyond that. Sword training hadn't even been performed under Kakuzu's watch – yet another case of neglect, Naruto thought cynically, to get away from me for a year…to focus on Fū – and all of the Suiton techniques he had learned had also been accomplished under Kisame's tutelage. With Kakuzu being a self-proclaimed Suiton expert (since Naruto had so far only seen minimal evidence of his prowess), it was slightly disappointing to have not learned anything from him.

But this most recent training…it was completely different from the other experiences.

Kakuzu had spent the entire two weeks drilling Naruto – teaching the theory, guiding the elemental manipulation, sparring with him, correcting and teaching him – until he could perform to the man's satisfaction one of his signature techniques almost instinctively. Even more impressive, the bounty hunter never once mentioned Fū or insulted Naruto. With respect to his usual attitude, Kakuzu's strange behavior was enough to put the blond on edge.

Three ink lions surrounded Shino, who sent his insects out to defend himself.

Naruto admitted that he was not the smartest person in the world. But despite not being gifted with Kakuzu's level of analytical intelligence, the blond was perceptive. After catching all the glares and disgusted looks of Konoha's citizens when he was younger, it wasn't overly surprising that he developed such a talent; under Kakuzu's mercenary teachings, the aptitude for it flourished. As such, he was normally able to read and comprehend people – actions, body language, facial expressions – after a short amount of observation. Kakuzu, of course, was a bit of an exception, with his face almost completely covered, his rigid stance, and his cool, impersonal demeanor. Even then, the Jinchūriki was able to understand some quirks of the older ninja due to the sheer amount of time spent with him.

Just based on the complete change in training methodology, Naruto could only guess that Kakuzu was…nervous about the upcoming mission. Naturally he had no proof, especially considering that his teacher would never admit to such a thing, but it was a good theory.

He assumed that part of the reason Kakuzu got some sort of thrill from chasing down high-ranking ninja was to assert his own power and dominance over his victims. If the blond was better versed in psychology, he probably could have effectively traced the issue back to Kakuzu's loss to the Shodai Hokage and his lingering desire to prove himself to a village he had long since abandoned. As it was, he only had guesses to go off of.

So Kakuzu searched out powerful opponents to fight, which led to him developing a reputation among the underworld and thus being searched out by Akatsuki. That in turn led to the mission to kill Orochimaru. And while the Leaf nukenin was strong, he was also a different caliber of strong than Kakuzu usually dealt with. Even though he chased after ninja capable in their own right, Kakuzu had enough confidence in his own abilities to leave those battles (mostly) unscathed, and always alive.

But Orochimaru was an experienced ninja who had also been recruited to join Akatsuki, and then lived through the perils of his own defection, followed by years of being searched for by practically the entire continent. Compiling that information with everything Zetsu had told them made the Snake Sannin out to be a very fearful man. So the only conclusion Naruto was able to arrive at was that the upcoming fight had Kakuzu questioning his own mortality. With the strength of Jiongu flooding his body, Naruto wasn't entirely sure how his teacher could be beaten, but he supposed that if all of Kakuzu's hearts were destroyed – if Orochimaru killed him five times – then he would die.

If Naruto's theory was right, and Kakuzu was truly apprehensive about facing Orochimaru, then the Snake Sannin was a far more formidable opponent than the blond was giving him credit for.

The only hitch that Naruto could see in his hunch was that Kakuzu had never before exhibited any sign of fear. Of course, as far as he knew (and with the exception of the First Hokage), the man had also never faced an opponent of Orochimaru's caliber before. However, if the case truly was that Kakuzu was questioning his ability to win, then it made sense that he would want the boy he had put years of his time into, the sole successor of his prized kinjutsu, to carry on whatever semblance of a legacy he had, including his ninjutsu. That's what families did, anyway.

I wonder if Kakuzu considers us family, Naruto pondered. The immediate answer was 'no', but the blond found it hard to believe that two people (three, if Fū was included) could spend so much time together and not think of each other as family members – even for someone as callous and detached as Kakuzu.

Fū nudged Naruto in the side. "Battle's over. Looks like you'll be up in a minute."

The other Jinchūriki looked down. There were several puddles of black goo on the ground, and all of them appeared to be writhing. It took the blond a couple of seconds to realize that the puddles were Sai's ink, which had obtained a thick, glue-like consistency and trapped Shino's kikai, which were desperately trying to escape. Meanwhile, Sai had moved in for the finishing blow, delivering several swift strikes before holding his blade at Shino's throat. There was silence for a moment until the Aburame intoned, "I surrender."

"The winner of this match is Sai," announced Genma. The artist formed a hand seal, and the ink surrounding Shino's bugs disappeared, allowing the insects to fly into the sleeves of their master's cloak. There was a smattering of applause from the audience with the match's conclusion, and Genma continued, "If both combatants will leave the arena, the next match will be between Hyūga Neji and Shinobu. Please report to the arena."

"Good luck," Fū whispered as Naruto turned to the stairs. Neji was already at the doorway.

"Thanks," he replied. He felt the urge to say something else, but he didn't know what, so he simply nodded and followed his opponent down the steps.

They took their places across from each other on the battlefield. Genma looked between the two of them, and after asking if they were ready, told them to begin. For a long moment, Naruto wasn't sure what to expect. Neji, similar to the preliminary matches, seemed to stand stolidly in the same position, arms crossed and expression stern. "You seem to want to say something," Naruto prompted at length.

"Give up."

"Excuse me?"

"Forfeit this match," Neji reiterated coldly, "or I will be forced to beat you into submission."

"…You have some sort of superiority complex, don't you?"

"You're an orphan from Amegakure, a clan-less nobody from an unknown village," continued the Hyūga, ignoring the barb. "I am a prodigy from the Hyūga clan, the most powerful family within Konoha. Fate has decreed that you will lose to me this day. Either forfeit now or face the might of the Hyūga."

"Good lord, you talk a lot," Naruto griped dramatically. "Is this the power of the Hyūga clan? To talk people into submission? I mean, it must be effective, since that other Hyūga bowed out after your little spiel last time." Naruto cupped his chin with a hand, as if in deep thought; Neji's face was slowly flushing in anger. "Hmm, considering that, I guess you are pretty strong—"

"You dare disrespect the power of the Hyūga?" seethed Neji. "You're a backwater ninja who could never compare to my greatness! I'll show you—!" A gust of wind blew past Neji, ruffling the long ponytail his hair was in.

Naruto moved his hands to his side from where they had been previously clapped together. While the Fūton: Reppūshō was not exactly an attacking move – and in fact was weaker when expelled from the mouth (as he had just done) than pushed with his hands – it did provide an excellent distraction. "Hm," he pondered, looking at his hands as if impressed with his ninjutsu expertise, "funny. It appears as if my weakest technique…just stopped your strongest technique." The blond dug his pinky finger into his ear, taking it out and inspecting it as one might an interesting curio. "I guess I have nothing to fear."

In the stands, Harō blinked and looked up at Kakuzu. "Shinobu seems to be playing with his food," he quipped.

"Yes," agreed the bounty hunter, "a bad habit he seems to have acquired from me."

Hyūga Neji settled into a traditional Jūken stance. "Have it your way. But fate will see that you lose today."

"You think that you'll win because of your belief in fate," returned Naruto, "but we believe in different things. The only thing I put my faith in," he continued, closing the distance between them at a quick pace, "is money."

Harō raised an eyebrow in mild disbelief of what his teammate just said. Kakuzu grinned wickedly behind his rebreather. "But he learns the important lessons as well." Let us see what you are capable of…Naruto.

Naruto got within striking range and threw his right fist forward. Neji bent his knees slightly and slid forward, using his left hand to shove the blond's punch off-course and driving his other hand forward. Two fingers drove a sharp spike of chakra into Naruto's elbow. The undercover Ame-nin jumped away, shaking his right arm.

He stared at the limb as a tingling sensation emanated from the area Neji struck. …So that's what Jūken is, huh?

"Hn," snorted Neji, "this is the extent of what you can do, after all that talk? I haven't even activated my Byakugan yet, and now your ability to push chakra through that arm has been compromised. Give up."

Apparently Neji didn't see the brilliance of Naruto's strategy. However effective Jūken was supposed to be, the blond guessed there was a disparity with how it worked on him; the tingling in his arm wasn't as bad as he guessed it should be, and when he tried manipulating the air around his hand, it was only slightly less responsive than he was used to. He looked up at Neji and readied himself again. Okay, one more experiment…

The Jinchūriki charged for the second time, and the Hyūga smirked and shook his head. "Such a pointless exercise." He waited until the younger boy was within range before jabbing out with his fingers, aiming for the other arm this time. Unlike the previous bout, Naruto blocked, throwing up his left forearm vertically inside Neji's stance and sending the attack wide. The Hyūga's other arm came forward and speared toward Naruto's chest. He twisted his entire body 90 degrees, narrowly avoiding the strike and bringing his left arm around to plant it in Neji's stomach.

Neji turned with the blow, letting his body contort around the limb. Using his momentum, he continued the spin, grabbing the blond's outstretched arm with one hand and preparing to close several of the chakra points in his opponent's left arm. Now! Naruto thought as he focused upon activating the technique.

Three pokes of Neji's fingers along his arm was all Naruto allowed before he wrenched away, putting enough space between them that Neji couldn't attack. The long-haired Genin was already making snide observations about Naruto's cowardice, but the blond ignored him in favor of analyzing the results of his test.

In comparison to the previous Gentle Fist strike, the fuzzy feeling in his arm was only a fraction as strong. If he was forced to call it anything, the attack was almost like a fly buzzing around his head – it was annoying, yes, but not really harmful to him. He stared at his arm and scowled. I hate it when Kakuzu's right…

When their training had begun, Kakuzu made sure to preface it with his assumptions and limited knowledge of the Hyūga's Gentle Fist taijutsu. The chakra network was the main target of the style; it was disrupted, he guessed, by the Hyūga inserting their own chakra into the pathway of whoever their opponent was. If that was indeed the case, Kakuzu asserted that it should already be less effective against someone like Naruto, whose entire body crawled with the black threads of Jiongu. It wasn't that the kinjutsu eliminated or even overrode his chakra network; it merely provided an invisible layer of protection which should interfere with the insertion of foreign chakra.

Strangely enough, it never helped block against genjutsu, though he thought that may be because the illusions targeted specific applications of the chakra sensory network, places the kinjutsu really didn't inhabit (the brain, mostly).

Provided that wasn't enough – and if the tingling in his right elbow was any indication, it wasn't – he had Kakuzu's ace-in-the-hole to physical attacks: Doton: Domu; Earth Release: Earth Spear. The bounty hunter had hypothesized that the protective quality of the skin-hardening technique would give Naruto the extra boost needed to overcome the negative effects of Neji's chakra. Judging by how much less the last attack was affecting him, the defensive ninjutsu had done the trick.

While grateful, Naruto still disliked how often his teacher was proven correct. But now that I know it works, it's time to get serious. Employing a strategy Kakuzu created, he silently activated the technique he had been working on with Fū.

His two-week training period with Kakuzu had involved more than just learning the Earth Spear technique. The bounty hunter had prepared him well enough that he could activate the defensive ninjutsu to cover certain areas of his body at will, though his lack of affinity for Doton moves meant that a rushed full-body covering was essentially out of the question (at his current level, anyway). After grasping the skill necessary to utilize the technique, Kakuzu had moved on to Naruto's other Earth Release skill set, minimal though it was. That focus led to the creation of the combo Naruto was currently employing.

In practical combat, his speed with executing it was rather abysmal, but with no interference forthcoming from Neji, it almost seemed embarrassingly simple to Kawarimi himself with the Tsuchi Bunshin he had created underground.

Safely hidden ten feet below the surface of the earth, Naruto could launch an offensive on Neji with his clone while staying on the defensive; best of all, with no way for the Hyūga to get to him, he didn't have to worry about the earth clone falling apart. Above ground, said duplicate began to attack Neji, engaging in an intricate dance of physical combat. While that occurred, Naruto moved through the earth by using the Earth Release: Hiding Like a Mole Technique, stealthily drawing closer to his opponent. With no fear of interruption, the blond focused on creating a second earth clone behind Neji, all the while preparing his own position for a final blow.

As the real Naruto moved closer, Neji ducked a high punch from the boy he was fighting. He scowled as his opponent shifted away from his retaliating palm-strike, blocking his follow-up with the opposite arm. Something was wrong…the Rain Genin was avoiding every move he performed with a fluidity he had barely displayed in their previous two interactions.

Neji's instincts warned him of an incoming threat, and he dodged left as a fist transited through his previous spot. A clone? he wondered. The two Ame-nin double-teamed him, thoroughly testing Neji's abilities to avoid two sets of punches, swipes, and kicks. They do well at coordinating their assault. It appears as if I need to get serious. Byakugan! His vision expanded and inverted, turning the world into a grayscale picture he could see from all angles. Blue chakra ran through both of his opponents, though neither was in a system of any chakra network he knew of.

They're both clones? His all-seeing eyes focused upon an anomaly below him, the chakra network of a human: Shinobu. Ah…a surprise assault from underground. Pity it won't work against the Byakugan.

Neji allowed the two clones to maneuver him where they wanted, noting that his opponent's position was almost directly beneath him; there was no point in countering the blows when it was only a matter of time before the Ame-nin launched his 'ambush'. His eyes narrowed marginally as the hooded Genin began to rise to the surface. It's time.

The clone in front of him adjusted his hips and kicked with his left leg, while the one behind him chopped sideways at his neck. Neji slid his stance wide and pivoted, simultaneously catching the ankle of the first with one hand and blocking the wrist of the second with the other. Then, Naruto popped up from the earth, punch heading straight for Neji's jaw.

Naruto felt his fist connect with something solid, and he smirked. It took a second for him to realize that whatever he had just punched wasn't soft, like Neji's flesh should have been, before the long-haired boy called, "Kaiten!" and began spinning.

A rotating hemisphere of chakra formed around the Hyūga's body, blasting Naruto backwards across the dirt. Both earth clones dissolved into mud, which was flung away by the motion of the Kaiten. Naruto rubbed his head from where he sat on the ground as Neji slowed to a stop. "My eyes see everything," he told Naruto.

The blond rose to his feet and dusted off the borrowed Rain ninja clothes. "Aww, you had to activate your little kekkei genkai to beat a backwater ninja like me. I think that says more about your misguided presumptions than anything else." When Neji didn't reply to his jibes, Naruto grinned. "Finally found a way to shut you up, did I?"

The Hyūga merely shook his head, though when he spoke his voice was a tad unsteady. "Your body is…infested with innumerable snake-like objects," he said slowly, as if testing the words. Naruto's face went blank, the idea that the Byakugan could identify Jiongu never occurring to him until that moment. Tone resuming its normal arrogance, Neji continued, "Having not yet seen your chakra network clearly, I was merely surprised. But it doesn't really matter what sort of ability you possess, because a failure will always be a failure, and you will lose. It has already been decided."

"I'll show you exactly what I can do with my ability," retorted Naruto.

"Unlikely," Neji snorted, bending his knees and settling into an unusual stance. "You're now within my field of divination."

"I'm wha—"

"Hakke Rokujūyon Shō." And then he moved. "Two palms!" Naruto barely managed to block both strikes. "Four palms!" He ducked the strike targeting his shoulder, but the next one jabbed down at his collarbone.

Fire seemed to erupt from the area where Neji poked him, and Naruto gasped in surprise at the feeling. Whatever Neji was currently doing, it was much more effective than the previous hits had been. I can't block all his blows, Naruto realized as the Hyūga called out, "Eight palms!" Only got one chance… He silently willed Doton: Domu into effect, spurring it to try and cover his entire body even though it had never worked before.

Neji's fingers hit his elbow, forearm, chest, and thigh, and the hardening technique halted; it covered one bicep, part of the opposite shoulder, and from Naruto's neck down to his heart.

"Sixteen palms! Thirty-two palms! Sixty-four palms!" The final blow was an open-handed palm to his hara, and Naruto tumbled end-over-end for almost 100 feet. Neji deactivated his Byakugan. "I used a bit more chakra than I normally would because of your unique body makeup, but the result is as I predicted. You have lost."

"Not…yet," groaned Naruto, staggering to stand. If there was one thing he'd gotten from Kakuzu, it was (snide) comments about his perseverance. He tried molding some chakra, but a burning sensation built in his arm until he felt that it might explode. Can't use chakra…but it's not like I need it, he thought, staring at his arm. More specifically, at the area where a single black band was etched into his skin as a permanent reminder of what he held. And if there's another thing Kakuzu gave me, it was Jiongu

The kinjutsu was currently wrestling for control of the blond's body, fighting to take over to defend its user. Not yet, he placated, willing the threads to remain in his body. They stilled upon his command, relinquishing what he sensed was temporary control back to him. Naruto gave a mental sigh of relief before refocusing his attention upon Neji. For whatever reason, Jiongu – at least while connected to his body in some form – required no chakra to use. It was almost ironic, considering the chakra boost it gave by assimilating other people's hearts.

"You think you can beat me in your condition?" Neji scoffed. The veins around his eyes bulged as his Byakugan reactivated. "Once a fool, always a fool."

Naruto took that as an invitation to attack. He moved forward (though a good portion of his earlier grace was lacking), pulling a handful of shuriken from his weapons pouch and hurling them at Neji. The boy dodged, and Naruto, a mere ten feet away, yanked on the wires attached to the throwing stars. They reversed direction, causing Neji to sigh. "Your rudimentary parlor tricks cannot win you this fight." He began to turn on the spot to start a Kaiten, but stopped.

Hyūga Neji found himself being prevented from using his absolute defense. Black tendrils were twined about both wrists, two for each joint, and they were connected to dozens more, all disappearing into the long sleeves of his opponent. "What is this?"

"A parlor trick," Naruto parroted, gesturing to the shuriken-wire setup currently lying forgotten on the ground, "to draw the majority of your attention away from me. So I could use my supposed failure of an ability to win this match." He laced his fingers together in the sign of the Snake. "Jiongu: Ketsugō Fōmu," he hissed. The remaining threads leapt into action, tying themselves more tightly around Neji's wrists, ankles, and waist.

"That fool," groused Kakuzu, "does he not realize that Takigakure is allied with Konohagakure? They could have representatives here, people who could recognize Jiongu."

"It's impressive, though, isn't it, Izo-sensei?" inquired Harō. "I mean, what he's doing with those threads…"

"No," countered Kakuzu, "he is still learning. There are many secrets to the technique that he has yet to tap into. What he is doing is befitting of an amateur, not to mention dangerous for our mission."

Harō considered what the man was saying. "…Do you really believe that?"

Whether I do or not is none of your concern. "Do you see the seal he is making?" Harō nodded. "It is completely unnecessary. He has some trouble with asserting his will over the threads at all times, so he created focusing applications utilizing the 12 hand seals in order to better control their actions during what he deems 'stressful situations'." Kakuzu snorted. "The one he is currently using is meant to bind. If he would simply buckle down and train himself properly, such a ridiculous concentration method would be unnecessary."

The nukenin lapsed again into silence. Harō considered asking why Kakuzu didn't teach the secrets of the kinjutsu to Naruto himself, but decided that the man probably had his own reasons to not do so (though he couldn't even begin to fathom what they were).

He could only hope that, in spite of Naruto's potential blunder, their plan still went off without a hitch.

Arakawa Daisuke stared at the fight between Hyūga Neji of Konoha and Shinobu of Ame and scowled. If that boy truly was from the Hidden Rain, then Daisuke would renounce his position as an Elder of Takigakure.

One of his bodyguards – Amano Jirō, Suiton expert of the Gogyō Go-Kō – leaned forward and whispered into his ear, "Daisuke-sama, that's—"

"I know," he muttered. The existence of Jiongu was a well-kept secret in Takigakure, known only to the Village Elders and the most elite ninja. After the bodies of the Village Elders had been found almost 70 years ago with gaping holes in their chests, the location of the kinjutsu had been checked. At the time, no one knew how it had been found, just that its disappearance was a bad omen.

The simple idea that Kakuzu (who wasn't in his cell and was the assumed culprit) had endowed the ability upon another person – let alone the fact that the former Taki-nin was still alive – made Daisuke's blood boil. "After the exams, we confront the child," he informed Jirō quietly. "I want to find out everything he knows about Kakuzu." Jirō nodded and straightened to continue observing the match.

Daisuke kept his own weathered eye upon the boy in the arena. If he could lead them to Kakuzu, then Takigakure could reclaim its honor…and Daisuke could get vengeance for the tragedy levied upon his family so long ago. His grandfather's corpse haunted his vision all too frequently.

You shall pay for your crimes, Kakuzu. Just you wait.

Naruto stared at Neji, currently suspended less than a foot off the ground by the unrelenting grip of Jiongu's tendrils. "You know," Naruto began conversationally, "judging by our current positions, I would think that you'd be having second thoughts about that whole fate thing. Seeing as how I've pretty much won…"

"You haven't won yet, loser!" spat Neji.

"Oh?" He switched his hands from the Snake to the Tiger. "Jiongu: Kantsū Fōmu." The threads coiled a little tighter to free half a dozen ends. The six tendrils straightened into sharp spears, stabbing into Neji's biceps, sides, and legs, pinning him into the ground. He cried out as blood seeped into the bandages around his right leg. Naruto continued idly, "I think that living in this safe, peaceful village has given you a false sense of just how strong you are.

"Belief in fate is a dumb notion, considering that you have no idea what exactly the rest of the world has in store for you. I think that I managed to prove that simply by defeating you here. As someone who's had more than one surprise thrown at me over my lifetime, I can guarantee that things aren't determined by something as fickle as fate. Find another dogma to bow down to."

"This match is over," said Genma. "The winner is Shinobu of Amegakure. Please proceed to the medical bay for healing."

Jiongu retracted its hold on Neji, hiding away again within Naruto's body. The blond moved off the field and into the medical bay, where a Hyūga began working on reopening his tenketsu. His opponent was brought in on a stretcher a minute later, and not too long after, Naruto was allowed to return to the viewing balcony. "Come find me again in a few years. Maybe then you'll be worth something."


Fū's eyes flicked nervously in Gaara's direction as Shikamaru and Temari left the balcony for the arena. Ever since Naruto had left to fight his own match, the other Jinchūriki's cold, teal eyes had stared at her with unrelenting intensity. It was highly unnerving, especially considering that Gaara's opponent, Uchiha Sasuke, had yet to appear in the stadium, and if he didn't show, she would be the Suna-nin's opponent after beating Ino.

It was a fight she would prefer not to participate in.

Fū sighed in relief when Naruto stepped up beside her, looking slightly worse for wear from his fight with Neji. He threw her a sidelong glance and a thumbs-up. She returned the gesture with a small smile before turning to the fight just beginning in the arena, though her mind was far away, fastened on the boy next to her.

The green-haired girl owed Naruto more than she felt she could repay. He had single-handedly brought her out from her own personal hell and into a life she was thoroughly enjoying. (Of course, in comparison to the oppression she had faced back in Takigakure, that wasn't saying much.) Simply put, Naruto was her savior.

As far as her background went, Fū assumed that it was relatively normal by Jinchūriki standards. It at least seemed somewhat comparable to what she knew of Naruto's pre-Kakuzu years, limited though those were. The really early years of her life were faded memories, small clips of a family that used to be content and complete. Her father had been a dark-haired shinobi from Takigakure's Tribe of Earth, an accomplished ninja with equally dark eyes and a strong jaw. His wife was a brunette with soft green eyes, a civilian woman who had granted Fū her tanned skin. How Fū had ended up with pale, minty green hair and orange eyes was a mystery – especially considering that she had checked her birth certificate when she was older to make sure that she wasn't adopted – but she shifted the blame to odd genetics and recessive traits. All she knew was that her phenotype made her unique within her home, and that despite her odd characteristics, her parents had cared for her.

The first few years of her life had been simplistic. Her father was gone a lot, performing missions for the sake of his family's livelihood; her mom had raised her patiently, with a gentle, guiding hand. There were no specific details, because time had rotted away all but the faces of the people whose DNA ran through her, but Fū did recall the day everything changed.

At the age of three, the five Village Elders had appeared on her family's doorstep and took the green-haired girl from the arms of her mother. They thanked the woman for her sacrifice and rushed Fū to a sealing chamber, where the bleeding body of a male in his early twenties lay on a table. Fū's wide eyes took in the sight of the room they were in before she was placed on another table and strapped to it. Next to her, the man's body shuddered and a groan escaped his lips as a powerful chakra leaked from him. "The beast is trying to escape, we must perform the ceremony now," snapped the Head Elder.

All Fū remembered after that was indistinct chanting and an oppressive pressure in the atmosphere before there was a glowing light and then immense pain as she became Takigakure's third Jinchūriki.

From then on, Fū never looked at the Hidden Waterfall Village in the same way. She had no idea of what had actually occurred, but it was enough that the first time she saw her parents after being taken away (a week later, when she had finally regained consciousness), her father had steered her mother in the complete opposite direction of her. It wasn't for another four months (a little after the first of many birthdays spent in solitude) that she discovered the exact reason why.

Fū was playing on the ground in a vacant field when it happened. She was alone, which wasn't unusual considering the fact that no kids were willing to go near her anymore, and she preferred to be outdoors rather than cooped up inside the tiny living quarters she was provided. Her pointer finger swept through the dirt surrounding her, drawing thoughtless shapes which resolved themselves into crude images of her family. Wet spots appeared on the ground as tears fell from her eyes. Why? Why did they all leave me? As her emotions overflowed with her tears, a miniature dust tornado swirled into existence in front of her. Fū gasped in surprise, and the construct fell apart.

What…was that? Fū looked around for anyone in the nearby vicinity, but when the search revealed no one, she stared in wonder at the ground. Did…did I do that? Closing her eyes, the green-haired girl placed her hand flat to the earth and focused intently. She slowly raised her hand, thinking only of the tiny dust devil she had created. Several minutes passed before she dared to look at the result.

Twirling in front of her was a perfect tornado of dust, no taller than six inches.

"FINALLY," rasped an irritated voice. And then everything disappeared.

Fū found herself standing in the middle of an almost-barren field, a small patch of wilted flowers a mere ten feet in front of her. Towering far above her were bars of crystallized honey, arranged in a lattice-work grid shaped like a beehive, or a bird cage. Encaged behind the bars was a humongous yellow-green and blue beetle with spiked, armored plating for an exoskeleton and seven lithe, whip-like tails extending from the base of its abdomen; six of those had wings fading from yellow to orange to red attached to them. Fū stumbled back a pace and fell on her rear, sending up a cloud of dust. "Wh-what—"


While the giant bug rambled to itself, Fū took the opportunity to get to her feet and take tentative steps toward the cage. "Um…" she tried, quaking slightly in fright, "what are you?"




Whatever the giant creature in front of Fū was – because most of the references it was making was beyond her knowledge – it certainly seemed to talk a lot. "I don't get it," she admitted.


"Jinton? I've only heard of—"


Fū thought back to the miniature dust cyclone she had created outside. "Okay. Um…thank you."

There was a brief pause before the Nanabi's rasping laughter filled the open area. "YOU'RE GRATEFUL TO ME? WHAT A RIDICULOUS NOTION. PERHAPS YOU WILL MAKE AN INTERESTING JINCHŪRIKI AFTER ALL…"

The barren wasteland faded away to nothing before Fū was able to ask what a 'Jinchūriki' was. Crippling stomach pain and the Bijū's mirth was all she remembered before blacking out.

The years had seemed to bleed together after that as Fū taught herself both Earth and Wind Release chakra manipulation. She had discovered that Doton ninjutsu came much easier to her than did Fūton, but she had assumed that that was because the man whom she shared genetics with – she refused to think of him as her father – specialized in the former. Combining the two into creating the Dust Release line of ninjutsu had been another issue altogether.

Despite how amicable the Nanabi no Kabutomushi had seemed when they first met, Fū quickly came to understand that the Bijū was not someone to get friendly with. The Seven-Tails was a bit of a sadist and had a tendency to look down upon humanity; Fū had no issue with that – her own view of humanity became more jaded by the day – except that the beetle seemed to regard her with only a little more deference than he did the rest of the populace. Then there was the fact that every time the Bijū communicated with her, pain rippled through her belly in varying intensity. Apparently that was a side effect of the seal Takigakure employed, which was (according to the beetle) weaker than the seals used by Iwagakure. Even to this day, Fū had never inquired as to the Seven-Tails' past or how he had that information, and the insect had never revealed any specifics of his own volition either.

The other problem Fū had with the Nanabi was that he offered very little input on how to use Jinton ninjutsu (though she was thankful for the lack of pain from the seal). Fū had deduced for herself that it was a combination element based on Earth and Wind Releases, but the combination aspect of the elemental chakras was far more difficult than she imagined. Taking into account the fact that she'd been forced to teach herself the theory and manipulate both elements (and with only a small amount of skill with wind chakra), Fū was impressed that she'd made much progress at all in her early years.

Another obstacle had come in the form of the Takigakure Elders, who had informed her that she would be attending the Academy. When she'd tried protesting (for that would cut into training time), they'd told her that she contained the Nanabi no Kabutomushi, and that if she wasn't trained to become the village's weapon, then they would extract the beast and put it in someone else, thereby killing her. Left with no options, she'd been forced to bow into their wishes.

The Academy, as she found out, wasn't all bad. She learned all the fundamentals and basic facts of the school's major subjects, plus it gave her a stronger basis for the nature manipulation she was trying to accomplish. The best part came sometime when she was nine-years-old, when the class was discussing history. Her class' teacher was reviewing the previous generations of the Gogyō Go-Kō – the Hidden Waterfall's elite Five Elements – but one of the members was noticeably absent. Knowing that she would be ignored if she asked (the life of a Jinchūriki, she had discovered, was quite unpleasant), Fū was quite pleased when one of her classmates pointed out the anomaly.

The teacher scowled and proceeded into an hour-long tirade about a man named Kakuzu, his status in the village, and then his shocking betrayal during the First Shinobi World War.

Whispers of the man considered Takigakure's biggest traitor traveled throughout the classroom. LOYALTY IS A COMMODITY EASILY MOLDED IN THIS VILLAGE, buzzed the Nanabi in Fū's mind, echoing the girl's own sentiments. Fū nodded absently, ignoring the slight pain in her stomach. The expression on the teacher's face as he spoke of Kakuzu…it closely mirrored how the villagers tended to look at her.

Something's not right. There's a piece of the story that's missing.

Fū snuck into the library late that night after it closed, entering the section restricted to only ninja of Jōnin rank or higher. Dust, she had discovered after learning how to combine earth and wind natures, was prominent enough in her surroundings that – given time – she could gather enough of it to manipulate for her own purposes. Levering open a window or providing a muffled landing, for instance.

It took a lot of searching, but after three days of relatively sleepless nights, Fū finally found the information she was looking for. The document was a journal-cum-history book written during the time of the First Shinobi World War. She flipped through its pages, skimming the contents until Kakuzu's name caught her eye. Going back several pages, she began reading.

"The Shinobi World War has been going on for 7 years now. Konohagakure has been successfully repelling the assaults of Kumogakure and Sunagakure, much to our surprise and chagrin. Thanks to the waterfalls hiding our village, Takigakure has managed to retain its neutrality in the war and watch as the self-proclaimed Five Great Shinobi Nations tear themselves apart. If Konohagakure falls in this war, then perhaps Takigakure can take its place as the real fifth Great Shinobi Nation.

"On a more personal level, Kakuzu is progressing along rather nicely. We have decided to create an elite branch of Jōnin similar to Kirigakure's Seven Shinobi Swordsmen, in the eventuality that we are pulled into this global conflict. The Gogyō Go-Kō will be comprised of one ninja from each of the five founding tribes, the most powerful ninjutsu specialist of their own element. My grandson is training hard to fulfill the role of our Suiton expert. I believe he will exceed all of our expectations and do us proud."

The entry was signed 'Takahashi Hiroki, Head Elder'. The name didn't ring any bells to Fū, and she skipped a couple of pages and buried herself back in the journal. Whoever Takahashi Hiroki was, his updates were sporadic, for the entry the Nanabi Jinchūriki landed on was dated 16 months later.

"We don't know exactly what happened, but it appears as though my grandson will be tested sooner than expected. Konohagakure has acquired the Kyūbi no Yōko, said to have the capacity to create natural disasters with just a swing of one of its mighty tails. Combined with the Shodai Hokage's strength, as well as that of his brother, the Shinobi World War will no doubt swing in Konohagakure's favor.

"We would prefer if that didn't happen.

"As a result, we have decided to send Kakuzu – the strongest of the Gogyō Go-Kō – on a mission to assassinate the Shodai Hokage. He will be departing tomorrow, and we send with him our hopes for success."

Ah, thought Fū, sensei skipped over that detail. She pushed a niggling suspicion to the back of her mind and moved on to the succeeding page, written only five days after the previous.

"My grandson has failed. He has returned from the Land of Fire wreathed in shame and on the brink of collapse. He was apparently overwhelmed by the Mokuton ninjutsu of the Shodai Hokage, a kekkei genkai which we all gravely underestimated. Now we are forced to make a decision which scars my soul in ways I never conceived possible.

"As of today, Takahashi Kakuzu will be declared an official traitor of Takigakure.

"In light of my grandson's failure, we have no choice but to acknowledge that our strength doesn't even compare to that of the fledgling Konohagakure. To protect ourselves, Kakuzu will take the fall for the sake of the village, and we will claim that his actions were of his own volition. As I write this, my grandson now lies in the depths of our prisons, barely conscious. The other Elders and I must meet to discuss our next options…"

"Well that explains more than it doesn't," Fū muttered. "They framed Kakuzu to take the rap for the failed mission that they assigned in order to protect the village. Doesn't exactly paint Taki in a good light, does it?"


That was rhetorical, the Jinchūriki shot back down the mental connection, grunting as the pain from the seal flared. The Bijū's grating laughter echoed in her mind as she returned to the journal. Compared to the small, neat handwriting of the previous pages, the current entry was rushed, clearly written with a tremulous hand. Splotches of some dark liquid – blood, she guessed – was spread liberally across the page, making the short passage somewhat illegible, though Fū could interpret some of the partially covered words.

"We— danger. Kakuzu escaped— stole Jiongu— killed Seiji— took his heart— coming for— sor—"

The last word was left unfinished, and the largest stain of blood decorated the area immediately surrounding it. Fū guessed that Hiroki was trying to apologize for his actions against his grandson, but Kakuzu had killed him before he could finish. The entry raised more questions than it answered: how did Kakuzu escape? What was Jiongu? What did Takahashi Hiroki mean by 'took his heart'? The remaining several pages were blank, though if the author died that was to be expected.

She closed the journal and re-shelved it before dragging her fingers along the spines of the rest of the books in that row. Eight shelves later, she found the section she was looking for. Fū considered how much time would have passed before the updates were made, then grabbed a previous edition of the Bingo Book dated two years after the end of the First Shinobi World War.

Flipping through its contents, she quickly located the section dedicated to the smaller villages. Kakuzu's pupil-less green eyes set in red sclera stared out at her from the book's faded pages. He wore a grayish-blue flak jacket with shoulder straps over a similarly colored long-sleeved shirt; dark brown hair framed his face in messy strands.

Fū peered intently at the photo, memorizing its every detail. Though the man was probably long dead, he had quickly become her idol. He had the courage to face the adversity the village lumped on him and then shoved it right back in its face; he left a village which turned against him and successfully enacted his revenge upon it. It was everything Fū wished she could do but lacked the power and constitution to actually carry out.

Basically, Kakuzu was everything Fū wished she could be.

After that, the green-haired girl had buckled down in her training efforts, multiplying the effort she put into improving herself. Her thought had been that, perhaps if she tried hard enough, the day would come when she could follow in Kakuzu's footsteps. Over the next 31 months, Fū had focused on bending the Dust Element to her will, trying to find the absolute perfect balance between Fūton and Doton which best utilized the combined chakra. Eventually, she had found what she felt was the right ratio, following it up by creating her own Jinton techniques based off of many Suiton ones (which were quite common, considering the plethora of water in Takigakure and size of the Tribe of Water). Her skills had carried her all the way through the Genin Exam, where she graduated a year early, to when Naruto had taken her from the hell that was the Hidden Waterfall Village; riddled throughout her life were memories of solitude and pain, of abuse both physical and emotional suffered at the hands of her peers and their parents.

Everything had seemed to disappear when Fū had looked up at Naruto's teacher and found those unforgettable green and red eyes glaring heated daggers into the blond's own blue orbs. His clothes were different (radically so), and his personality seemed cruel and sadistic, but he was alive.

It was all she could do to utter that first sentence, overcome by shock and a slight dose of fear – fear of what he had lived through and experienced, fear of being rejected by her idol, for who knew what over half a century of bitterness and solitude did to a person? Those strange eyes turned on her, fierce with a mixture of loathing and…intrigue.

The gods were apparently smiling upon her, for she became Kakuzu's second pupil through an almost ironic twist of fate. How else could one explain the fact that Takigakure's most prized possessions belonged to scorned outcasts who had met through a single, common thread named Uzumaki Naruto? Three months later found Naruto stuck training with Kisame, leaving Fū following her idol into the Land of Earth for her own year of training. "I am curious," Kakuzu began after several hours of walking in silence, "what exactly the history books have told you about me."

Fū thought back several months to when she had met Kakuzu and told him that she knew only of his reputation through Takigakure's history books. "Well, to be perfectly honest…you're not actually in the history books." The mercenary remained silent, though Fū sensed he was waiting for her to continue. "We were discussing the Gogyō Go-Kō—" Kakuzu snorted, and she honestly didn't know if it was contemptuous or humorously mocking "—and someone from the first generation was…absent."

The older nukenin could read between the lines. "Those fools would ignore my accomplishments."

She decided to skip the trivialities of her past's searching endeavors. "I was curious, so I snuck inside the library and found an old journal from Takahashi Hiroki."

"Conniving old man," seethed Kakuzu.

"It…explained some things," she finished quietly after a moment. She didn't yet know enough about Kakuzu's personality or temperament to make accurate judgments on what he was thinking or how he was feeling, so she wanted to tread cautiously. Still, she was curious… "But what's Jiongu?"

Kakuzu's arm lashed out, half his forearm attached to the rest of his limb by numerous black threads. Fū ducked to slap her palms to the ground and call up a wall of earth, knocking his forearm skyward at a slight angle. "Hmph, you are already learning." She grinned at the comment. "This is the power of Jiongu, the technique hidden away by the Elders upon the village's founding. They were afraid of the overwhelming power it offered its user." Kakuzu grinned wickedly, though his student couldn't see it. "They were right to do so."

"Whoa," she breathed, "that's awesome." Then she remembered something else from the journal. "Does it allow you to steal hearts?"

"That is a question you can ask Naruto when you next see him," he told her instead. "I will be frank with you. While ninjutsu is a specialty of mine, Jinton is not one of the primary chakra elements, and so I have little advice to give on the subject.

"However, if you are truly interested in becoming my protégé, then I must impart upon you my expectations." He waited a moment, purposely building the tension before continuing, "It is my desire that you become part of the motivation for Naruto to grow stronger."

"I don't really understand."

Kakuzu sighed. "My methods, as you will discover, are rather unconventional. I dislike dealing with children and ignorance, and more often than not I have my own agenda. Naruto was brought up in a cruel environmental, and then came under my care, which I am sure provided only some respite for his ego." He paused, as if to consider what he was saying, then admitted, "A side-effect of living by yourself for decades is that you come to care about no one but yourself. Making that person a caretaker to a young child is counterintuitive, though I have yet to hear a complaint from Naruto.

"However, I do not plan to change my methods; it is my belief that shinobi do not need to have their hands held throughout their growth, and each person should grow for his or her own merit rather than that of another. I am not a kind man by any stretch of the imagination, and it is reflected in my training methodology. Yet, despite my belittlement of his skills, Naruto has the potential to become one of the greatest shinobi the world has ever seen. It is my desire for you to be a stepping stone on his path, one which Naruto will strive to surpass, though I am certain that he is already stronger than you."

"Then why—"

"Because I have made him believe that he is weaker than he is. And I will continue to do so through back-handed compliments and barbs at his strength and comparisons of your abilities until he realizes his own greatness and stops seeking my approval. His skills are spread thin across a plethora of topics, resulting in only short periods of devotion to areas that he can eventually grow to excel in. As a result, you must rise to the challenge and provide him with competition, an equal that will appear better than him and force him to question his abilities, and that begins here and now." The former Taki-nin paused to allow his explanation to sink in. "…Is this acceptable?"

"…Why?" she asked, and it wasn't anger at being used which laced the question, but shock at all the information she was receiving. "If you're as cruel as you say you are, and you don't care about anyone else, what's the point of doing all of this?"

"…Because Naruto will become my legacy."

Fū digested this answer and then shrugged. Kakuzu's answer, while seemingly straightforward and almost simplistic, was too cryptic for her to fully understand his motives. Not that they mattered too much at this point. She decided that he would either explain them to her in due time, or she would figure them out by herself. Either way, she was helping her savior and learning from her idol; life couldn't get much better. "Let's go."

A small tear appeared in Fū's white shirt as she belatedly dodged Kakuzu's attack, the unexpectedness of it successfully catching her off-guard this time. "Takigakure Ryū: Mizukiri no Yaiba," announced the bounty hunter. "This technique almost single-handedly ensured my position in the Gogyō Go-Kō."

"…You know how to use a sword," Fū noted. How did he form that weapon so quickly? "You could've easily trained Naruto yourself. Why pass him on to someone different?"

"I only know some measure of basic kenjutsu. In comparison to my knowledge, the tutelage of one of Kiri's Seven Shinobi Swordsmen will provide an opportunity for Naruto to excel in swordsmanship." Kakuzu disappeared, and before Fū could even react, he was behind her, Watercutting Sword held to her throat. "Additionally, we needed to have this conversation far removed from prying ears. Naruto can never know about any of this. He must be pushed to his limit and then over it, without ever discovering who stirs the pot. If that sounds too difficult for you…" he leaned in so that he could speak directly into her ear, "I will kill you."

Fū tried to steady her breathing, exhaled a little too hard, and felt a bead of blood run down her neck. "You drive a hard bargain." She tried to make her voice sound light, but it was hard to do when a ruthless killer – regardless of her opinion of him – had her at his mercy. "But this is all rather unnecessary. My loyalty lies with you and Naruto. And if this is for my benefit, for Naruto's benefit…then who am I to argue?"

The sword was withdrawn and Fū sighed in relief. "You are an amusing girl," Kakuzu stated after a moment of thought. "Let us commence with your training."

Things continued smoothly from that point…well, as smoothly as they could when Kakuzu was the tutor. Fū learned better through practical exercise as opposed to theory and book-learning, so as she and Kakuzu traveled around the Lands of Earth and Wind (as well as some of the territories west of them), the bounty hunter taught her both his taijutsu style and a repertoire of Suiton ninjutsu which she converted to Jinton.

The day before she and Kakuzu were supposed to reunite with Naruto, Fū asked the nukenin point-blank what he meant a year ago by using her to motivate Naruto: "I know that we had this conversation before we began training, but I still don't get your plan to use me to make Naruto stronger." She half-expected him to not answer, too withdrawn even after a year of just the two of them traveling together to explain things to her properly. To her pleasant surprise, he deigned to respond.

"Psychology," he began after a pause of consideration, "is an intriguing area of study. You would be surprised at how easily the brain is fooled into believing something simply through the subtle prods of actions and words. Manipulating the mind is an easy task if you know which buttons to push."

"Meaning?" Fū knew that Kakuzu tended to delve into long-winded explanations, but she was willing to listen if it answered what his goal was in a way that she would understand.

He paused, then continued, "For example, Naruto was forced to lead a life of solitude and exile when he was younger. As a result, he grew up desiring recognition from the people in his surroundings, doing anything to achieve their acknowledgment. Now the only person he has to impress, to find acceptance from, is me. So whether it is a conscious or subconscious desire – and I am of the opinion that it is the former, part of a psychological condition known as traumatic bonding – Naruto will seek my approval…my recognition…at any cost.

"Because of this, psychologically speaking, Naruto's mind is fragmented."

"…Are you saying that he's crazy?"

"No," sighed Kakuzu, massaging the bridge of his nose to stave off his temper. "There is a stark difference between insanity and cognitive uncertainty." Fū made as if to say something, but her teacher cut across her. "Naruto does not possess confidence in his own strength because I have never recognized it, never accepted the breakthroughs he makes in his training. So he will grow stronger in an effort to prove himself to me."

"And you know this…how?"

"…We are similar."

Deciding the she wouldn't get a better answer than that, Fū asked, "So…if you're focusing on him, what am I doing here?"

"Do you listen to anything I say?" Kakuzu demanded irately. "Did you not comprehend a word of what I told you before we began this venture?" He fought the urge to strangle the green-haired girl. "You are a stepping stone on his path to greatness. Even though he is undoubtedly stronger than you—"

"If he's stronger than me, I don't understand my purpose!"

Kakuzu lashed out with his arms, threads wriggling out and ensnaring Fū in their grasp before she could react. They retracted and brought her up his face, his fierce green eyes boring holes into orange ones. "Shut up and listen, girl. Naruto has been training for many years in a wide variety of areas; he possesses a natural talent for Fūton ninjutsu, an ancient kinjutsu allowing him to currently access Doton and Suiton techniques, and eventually the other elemental chakras as well, a Summoning Contract lost for half a century, and now kenjutsu. On the other hand, your skills are limited to my own taijutsu and Jinton, plus its separate components; and while you can utilize both earth and wind chakra – the former in quite an impressive manner – your knowledge of Fūton ninjutsu is severely limited.

"But this works into my plan. While you have fewer fields of expertise, you have more successfully mastered yours in your time using them than Naruto has had to understand any singular talent of his own. I am banking on this difference to impact Naruto's mentality. As he is now, he knows that he cannot compare to me; however, if his own peer, a fellow Jinchūriki, appears to outdo him in such a short amount of time, it will force him to reassess his own skills, causing him to rise to the challenge to beat you.

"As I said before, psychology is a powerful weapon." He released the Nanabi's jailor, allowing the black tentacles of Jiongu to slither back under his skin. "Even if it is untrue, a mind as splintered as Naruto's will accept what is force-fed to it. If you focus on upstaging him with your artistry in Doton and Jinton moves, then I will have the material needed to push him over the edge, to drive him into becoming the best that he can possibly be.

"You are a means to an end, although you, too, have the potential to become great. Knowing what I know now, I would expect no less from a Jinchūriki. But your needs are secondary to that of Naruto's growth." He turned with a swish of his cloak and kept walking. "It is not yet time for you to understand the specifics of the why, merely to play your part in the how." Low enough that Fū couldn't hear, he muttered, "Someone needs to carry on what I have started. Uzumaki Naruto will become my legacy by my hand, whether or not he is aware of it."

Naruto… True to her word, Fū never uttered a word to her fellow Jinchūriki about anything that Kakuzu had told her; partly because she feared what the man would do to her if he found out (and he would find out), but also because it was working. She had started paying close attention to the strategy Kakuzu employed to motivate Naruto, from his brusque dismissals to the compliments recognizing Fū's skill but not the blond's. Strange as it seemed, over the course of the Chūnin Exams, Fū had seen Naruto double and redouble his efforts during training, his determination to impress Kakuzu and surpass her driving him to become better, stronger, more talented.

Just looking at his fight with Neji was proof of how far Naruto had come in such a short time. Granted, his training had been temporarily placed under Kakuzu's watchful (and strict) eyes in order to properly prepare him for the upcoming battle with Orochimaru's men, but his progress was still nothing to sneeze at. Considering his wide array of different aptitudes – especially in comparison to her more meager skill set, as Kakuzu had pointed out – it was nothing short of amazing that Naruto had gotten as far as he had with each one. Fū had no doubt that he surpassed her as far as sheer ability went, even if some of his technique and expertise was a tad rawer.

There was always room for improvement, though. Despite his victory against Neji (impressive considering he had chosen to go toe-to-toe with a taijutsu specialist using taijutsu, even if he had won with Jiongu), Fū had little doubt that Naruto's performance would still be criticized by Kakuzu at first opportunity (including a violent telling-off for using Jiongu). Still, it was a little shocking to discover how good a mastermind the former Taki-nin was; almost as surprising as how well Naruto fell into the role Kakuzu predicted for him. Perhaps the blond was as psychologically broken as Kakuzu said he was…

"The fight's over," Naruto mentioned quietly, breaking Fū from her reverie. She looked down, spying the Sand kunoichi and the Konoha-nin standing mere feet apart. Both of them raised one hand, and several seconds passed before the proctor announced that Temari was the winner. "Interesting," mulled Naruto. Fū opened her mouth to ask for an elaboration, but Genma's voice broke through her question, saying that the match between Uchiha Sasuke and Sabaku no Gaara was next.

"Uchiha-san has yet to show up," intoned Shino. Fū's attention switched to the Aburame – absently noting that Neji had returned to the balcony – as the bug-user turned to face Sai. "As his teammate, I presume that you would know something of his whereabouts."

Sai shrugged, pasting a smile on his face. "Kakashi-sensei took him away for private tutoring. I'm sure Sasuke-san will show up soon."

"I hope he doesn't," spoke Gaara, who had yet to move towards the stairs. The Ichibi Jinchūriki shot Fū a hungry look which caused her to shiver. If Sasuke didn't appear for his match, then it was only a matter of time before the Suna-nin's opponent would be—

"He's here," announced Naruto. Everyone else looked to the arena, where Sasuke and Kakashi had just appeared in a swirl of leaves. Gaara grunted and moved to the stairwell as Fū watched him go; the green-haired girl breathed a low sigh of relief when he was no longer visible. "You okay?" Naruto whispered.

"Yeah…" she breathed. "Good thing the Uchiha showed up right on time."

He nodded. "Well, let's see what the two of them can do."

Naruto, even as someone who experienced and witnessed the powers granted by a Bijū on a daily basis, would admit that Gaara's abilities were impressive. Upon the start of the fight, his sand caught Sasuke's thrown shuriken and morphed into a Suna Bunshin. Sasuke dispersed it with a couple of well-placed hits, and Naruto found himself equally impressed by the Uchiha's skill as he disappeared and reappeared behind the Suna-nin to land a punch to his jaw.

The blond was forced to admit that Kakuzu's assessment of Gaara's abilities were accurate to a fault. Sasuke continued to pummel his opponent with taijutsu, cracks appearing in Gaara's sand armor as the Uchiha's overwhelming speed and power completely outclassed the redhead's defense. Gaara's taijutsu abilities are about as existent as my own skill in genjutsu, Naruto concluded. Kakuzu was right. Not that that was overly surprising, just frustrating to admit.

Then it stopped mattering. The Sand Genin enclosed himself in a sphere of sand; his opponent's fist smashed into it, but nothing happened. An eye formed above the sphere, and though Sasuke tried attacking it again and again – causing spikes of sand to shoot out at him – there was no change in the situation.

On the other side of the viewing balcony, Temari started trembling.

"What will you do now, Uchiha Sasuke?" muttered Naruto. As if in response, Sasuke backed away and ran high up the arena's wall, going through a series of hand signs and then grasping his left arm with his right. Blue-white lightning crackled in the palm of his left hand in an impressive display of nature manipulation for a Genin. Then he charged, lightning jutsu digging into the wall as he moved in a straight path towards Gaara's sphere of sand.

Is that even going to work? the blond wondered. While Gaara's automatic defense could be beaten with sheer speed and his armor was able to be cracked, the shell that he had erected had seemed impervious to Sasuke's attacks up until that point. Then again, normal sand is composed of some form of earth, and Raiton is strong against Doton, so maybe…

The Uchiha thrust his hand forward. The lightning attack split the sand like a knife going through hot butter. There was a brief five seconds of silence as Sasuke stood there with his arm shoved halfway into the sphere. Then…

"MY BLOOD!" screamed Gaara.

About half a dozen different things happened almost simultaneously in the split second following the boy's bloodcurdling cry. Gaara's protective sphere exploded outward in a shower of sand, blasting Sasuke backwards and sending him skidding along the ground.

Smoke engulfed the area where the Kazekage and the Hokage were sitting, galvanizing several ANBU Black Ops hidden in the crowd into action.

Temari leapt from the viewing balcony and glided to the battlefield on her fan as two other figures – Kankurō and the Sand Siblings' sensei, guessed Naruto – joined her from the stands.

Ninja dressed in the uniforms of the Hidden Sand and the Hidden Sound leapt from their seats and began engaging ninja of the Hidden Leaf in battle.

White feathers obscured Naruto's vision and his eyelids suddenly felt heavy. "Genjutsu," he mumbled. He tried to bring his hands up to form the seal to dispel the technique, but his arms felt like lead, sluggish with sleep, and he swayed dangerously on the spot. Then the feeling disappeared, and Naruto blinked himself back to awareness. Fū's pointer and middle fingers were held to his forehead and her eyes were closed; she had disrupted his chakra for him, breaking the illusion. "Thanks." Fū nodded once before both undercover Genin found themselves frozen in place, a buzzing sound filling the air around them.

Shikamaru was bent with one knee on the ground, his hands in the seal for his clan's trademark jutsu. Shino stood next to him, his kikaichū swarming around him in an angry black cloud; Neji, Ino, and Sai flanked them, all of them prepared for combat in their own way. "What are your intentions here, Ame-nin?" demanded Neji.

Naruto sighed. "If you're asking if we're part of this apparent invasion of your village, the answer's 'no'. Do you see any Ame-nin attacking?"

The Konoha Genin exchanged looks. "Seriously?" asked Fū. "Don't you have anything better to do than detain us? I'm pretty Sasuke is following after Gaara and his teammates…who are part of the force attacking your village. And your Hokage is in trouble." They all turned around in time to see Sasuke disappear over the arena wall; a purple barrier had been erected around the roof of the main watchtower where the two Kages had been watching the matches.

"She has a point," Shikamaru stated, releasing the Shadow Imitation Technique.

The two Jinchūriki each held up a hand in farewell. "Later," they chirped in unison. In a swirl of wind and dust, they were gone.

"Perhaps it would have been wiser to interrogate them a bit more," Shino mused, shifting in a way that suggested he was looking at Ino. No one said anything to this, but Sai pulled out his scroll and summoned an ink bird. He jumped onto the animated creature and flew off in the direction Sasuke had disappeared. The four remaining Genin nodded and then followed him out, leaping from the balcony and running across the arena and over the wall top.

Naruto and Fū reappeared from their respective Shunshins in the arena far from the fight between Genma and the Sand Siblings' sensei. "Shouldn't we be finding Kakuzu and Harō?" asked the Nanabi Jinchūriki.

"In this mess?" Naruto retorted. "Konoha, Suna, and Oto are all fighting, and we don't even know where they are." He paused, scanning the crowd in a vain attempt to find the two males. "No, it's better to stay somewhere obvious and let them find us."

"Good," stated an older voice, "because that makes it more convenient for us." Naruto and Fū whirled around to find an elderly man with a cane standing behind them. He was flanked by five ninja wearing the standard Takigakure Jōnin outfit, the fifth one possessing a porcelain mask with the Hidden Waterfall emblem on the forehead and a blue and light-blue overlapping wave pattern decorating the bottom portion.


"Shinobu of Amegakure, correct? My name is Arakawa Daisuke, and I'm curious to know where you got that most intriguing ability you displayed against the Hyūga child." The man's tone was pleasant enough, but Naruto knew that it was just a front.

"…Kekkei genkai?" he offered.

"Ah," allowed Daisuke, "and yet you have no clan affiliation. How curious…" He paused in a way that suggested he was thinking over what Naruto had just told him, considering the likelihood of such a scenario. "Do you know what I think?" There was a loud explosion as a giant three-headed snake broke through the wall surrounding Konoha; to the blond, it was like the herald of his own doom. "I think that you're in possession of an ancient technique that belongs to Takigakure." Daisuke looked like he wanted to say more, but his eyes darted to the side and widened upon seeing Fū.

Oh shit, thought Naruto, mentally preparing for the worst, we're so screwed.

"You," hissed the elder, "how are you—". He took a moment to recompose himself before turning his full attention back to Naruto. "Apparently you possess more than one secret of ours. Capture them alive," he ordered his guards, "I want to know everything they know about Kakuzu. Today is the day we reclaim both of Takigakure's lost prizes."

Naruto and Fū moved to stand back-to-back as the five Waterfall Jōnin formed a loose circle around them. The sounds of clashing kunai resounded in the auditorium, accentuated by the shouts of fighting ninja and the thuds of bodies hitting walls and stadium seats. Naruto glanced at the purple barrier, where he presumed Orochimaru and the Sandaime Hokage were locked in a deadly fight for their lives. "I'll give Orochimaru this," he commented to Fū. "He sure knows how to create a scene."

And then, amidst the chaos of the invasion, their adversaries pounced.

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