The Cost of Living


"Ah, Kakuzu-san, a pleasure to see you again."

Naruto and Fū both jumped as the strangest person they had ever seen emerged from a tree. His face and upper body were two colors – half-black, half-white – and he possessed yellow eyes (one of them pupil-less) along with light green hair. A large Venus Fly Trap engulfed and protected his head, making him seem more plant than human, especially with what little they could see of him.

Naruto was still fixated on the fact that this…person…had just morphed out from a tree.

On the other hand, Kakuzu appeared to be completely unfazed. "Zetsu," he greeted in a monotone, "how unsurprising to run into you here."

Zetsu merely stared at the tall ninja unblinkingly.

With just under a week before the Chūnin Exams began, Kakuzu and his pupils had taken their time traveling the relatively short distance from their training spot to the Land of Rice Paddies. The seven-hour trek had led them past the Valley of the End, the last battlefield between Konoha co-founders Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara. Naruto and Fū were in awe at the sight of the awesome statues and roaring falls.

Kakuzu had remained oppressively silent, and Naruto thought that perhaps the bounty hunter had scowled at the Senju's statue as they passed.

About 10 miles away from the Valley of the End, the strange man whom Kakuzu referred to as Zetsu had popped out of a tree. As Kakuzu and Zetsu engaged in conversation, both kids were shocked to realize that the newcomer had two personalities. Apparently Kakuzu had already become acquainted with this trait of the Akatsuki member, for he seemed to be unalarmed by the contradicting voices.

"How have you been, Kakuzu-san?" implored White Zetsu politely. "Do not engage him," snarled Black Zetsu, "we are here for one purpose only, at the command of Leader-sama."

"That seems to be the general trend of things," Kakuzu commented dryly.

"Leader-sama is a man worthy of respect," Zetsu informed him, "but enough of this idle chitchat. We have other places to be. Come, we'll show you to your target." Zetsu unmerged completely from the tree, walking towards a rather large rock embedded in the ground. Three sets of eyes followed him.

The Akatsuki member held forth his right hand, and Kakuzu briefly saw the glint of a ring, positioned on a different finger than the one Konan had flashed him. The rock in front of the plant-man slid slowly to the side, revealing a man-sized hole in the ground. Kakuzu could only conclude that the rings allowed members access to hideouts that were otherwise off limits to lower minions.

"Your requested third teammate is waiting in there," Zetsu said, and Naruto almost thought that he sounded snippy. "We have other errands to run. Be nice," warned Zetsu's white side, "Harō is a good boy; treat him well." With that, the plant-man disappeared into the ground, two-thirds of his audience wide-eyed at the ability.

The trio descended into the hole, the rock moving back into place to conceal the opening once Kakuzu's head cleared. Dim lamps hanging from the walls illuminated the short staircase that opened into a larger chamber, a circular area about 500 feet in diameter.

Naruto was surprised to see the sheer amount of supplies that had been stored within the cavern. Ninja attire from multiple villages hung in neat rows along the walls; the blond could easily pinpoint the standard Chūnin and Jōnin flak jackets, as well as ANBU armor, of both the Cloud and Leaf, with a massive surplus of the latter. Outfits from the Hidden Rain and Waterfall, while not as plentiful, could still be spotted interspersed between the two Great Nations, along with some strange attire with notable black and gray camouflage patterns. Hanging next to each village's clothing were rows of hitae-ate, the one next to the unfamiliar clothing bearing a musical note. Naruto moved closer, deciding he wanted a closer look at the objects of the unknown village.

Meanwhile, Fū had stepped in the opposite direction and had begun to admire the stock of weapons. Crates of kunai and shuriken sat against the wall, along with several smaller boxes of paper bombs. Spools of ninja wire and stacks of senbon – the sharp, needle-like tools used mostly by medical ninja – lay in neat piles nearby. Multiple umbrellas – a weapon commonly affiliated with Amegakure ninja – hung by their handles from hooks protruding from the wall. Also littering the wall were other weapons; Fū identified several tantō (taken from Leaf ANBU, she guessed), a couple of tonfa, two katana, and a kusarigama before her knowledge of blades ran out. Several scrolls also hung from the cavern wall, and the girl wondered briefly at the army that could be prepared with the supplies they were currently surrounded by.

Kakuzu's interest had been immediately drawn to a point halfway between where his two pupils were standing. "I presume that you are the third student Zetsu mentioned," he intoned. At these words, Naruto and Fū both turned their heads in the direction Kakuzu's voice seemed to be directed.

A boy sat on a crate, his right arm hung loosely over his bent knee. He had short, cobalt blue hair that was styled up in a spiky mohawk and skin a shade darker than pale. The boy jumped off the crate, revealing himself to be slightly taller than Naruto and possessing stormy gray eyes. He was garbed in a black cloak with red trim (a duplicate of the Akatsuki cloaks without any red clouds) and a gray armor piece which was wrapped around his torso. "My name is Harō," he said by way of explanation. His voice was soft, but the way his eyes flicked from person to person showed Kakuzu that he was more analytical than shy. Harō bowed slightly and added, "You must be Kakuzu. I have been informed that I am to follow your instructions."

Kakuzu smirked beneath his mask. "Ah, a child I would have no problem teaching. He recognizes power and is respectful—" Naruto scowled, "—and he does not wear a garish uniform." Fū placed her hands on her hips and huffed indignantly. "Tell me, boy, what are your abilities?"

Harō's eyes flickered from Naruto to Fū, as if unsure whether to divulge information in front of them. An intelligent Genin, Kakuzu noted with satisfaction, he watches his surroundings and plans his moves accordingly. It seems that this 'Leader' I hear so much about has some worthwhile minions under his command. "Speak," he commanded. "These will be your teammates, and understanding each other's skills is imperative for your cohesiveness as a unit." Not that Kakuzu really cared about teamwork, but that had been important back when he still worked for Takigakure, and would likely prove to be so once again during the Chūnin Exams.

"I'm a sniper," Harō responded. Naruto's scowl gained a touch of confusion as one of Fū's eyebrows rose. Kakuzu's hard stare prompted the boy to elaborate. "I'm a mainly long-distance ninjutsu user proficient with Raiton techniques. Using the constant rain present in Amegakure, I'm able to pinpoint targets from far away and take them out."

"Your leader must be an intelligent man, to use someone with your abilities in such a resourceful fashion," Kakuzu observed.

"Pein-sama is a man worthy of respect!" replied Harō devoutly. "He will save our country by eliminating Hanzō and his group of terrorists!"

The outburst was the first sign that Harō actually cared about something. Interesting, mused the bounty hunter, it seems his loyalty to Pein – whom I can only presume is this illustrious Leader – is a pressure point for him. We shall have to be careful of that. However, it also means that he will be completely devoted to this mission so as to please his lord. Excellent. "Brat, girl, speak."

Fū stepped forward first. "I'm Fū, and I specialize in close- to mid-range combat. My ninjutsu abilities lie in Doton and Fūton, as well as Jinton, a combination of the two."

A moment passed before Naruto stepped forward, unwilling to test Kakuzu's temper. "My name's Naruto, and I'm mostly a mid-range ninjutsu specialist with Fūton and Suiton attacks. I've also got some kenjutsu training for close combat."

If Kakuzu were a more expressive person, he probably would have exhibited a sense of pride in the fact that both his students had explained their abilities to a complete stranger without giving away any pertinent information – their Jinchūriki status or Naruto's kinjutsu, for instance. However, as he was not that type of man, he quickly shoved that thought to the back of his mind before ordering Harō to tell them what he knew of the mission.

"Not much," offered the cobalt-haired boy with a shrug, "I was just told to wait here by the plant guy until someone came. Oh, the plant guy did say that we were to attend the Chūnin Exams as Amegakure shinobi," he added.

That announcement caused Kakuzu to frown. While he knew that they couldn't waltz into Konoha as they were, the idea that they would have to disguise themselves as Rain ninja was not one he was looking forward to.

Of course, his first student had already taken matters into his own hands. "Here," said Naruto, picking Genin attire from the Amegakure section of clothes, "this looks like everything we'll need." He walked over to Harō and deposited a bunch of clothes into his arms, throwing another set at Fū. Kakuzu eyed the blond critically as he was given his own, rather large, bundle of ninja gear. "I guess that you have to wear this stuff, too, huh, Kakuzu?" he mentioned.

"Keep to your corners, or else," threatened the older ninja. He glared at Naruto – about to protest that there were no corners in the round cavern – until the blond turned around. It wasn't a matter of being self-conscious, but if he had to don such a ridiculous outfit, he would do it without more comments about his strange body. The reveal of the mouth-stitches during his battle with his students was plenty enough for now.

Ten minutes later, all four were dressed in standard Ame-nin attire. Naruto and Harō wore an elbow-length gray shirt over a blue shirt, with a pale green scarf wrapped loosely around their necks. Dark blue pants with four light blue stripes along the sides ended in black ninja shoes; each boy had a tan kunai pouch attached at the back of their pants, and their arms were wrapped from elbow to wrist in bandages. Lastly, both had donned the hitae-ate of Amegakure – a metal plate with four vertical lines sewn upon blue cloth; Harō wore his tilted and just off-center of his forehead (and muttered quietly about how he missed his own, slashed-through mark), while Naruto had been forced by Kakuzu to wear a full dark blue head covering ("How many people in Konoha have bright yellow hair?" demanded the bounty hunter when Naruto whined), and would have to place a minor Henge on to cover his whisker-like markings upon reaching Konoha.

Fū was dressed in much the same fashion, wearing a red undershirt instead of blue and skin-tight pants that ended just above her knee. Her hitae-ate was tied around her right bicep, and the red cylindrical object she always carried remained in place on her back.

It took a strong amount of self-restraint for Naruto not to comment on Kakuzu's current condition, considering the bounty hunter was never seen without his typical cloak, head covering, and mask. The former Taki-nin had been forced to wear a long-sleeved black shirt and pants, with Ame's sea green, Jōnin flak jacket over that. A dark blue material – a rain cloak, Naruto surmised – was draped over his shoulders and fell to his mid-forearm, the cloth open in the front for mobility. Like the Genin, Kakuzu had wrapped bandages around the rest of his forearms down to the wrist, and kept a brown kunai pouch attached to his pants at the back. In order to keep himself fully covered, he had also donned a full head covering with the Hidden Rain Village affiliation on it, as well as a complex-looking rebreather to hide the remainder of his facial features. "Get your supplies," he ordered gruffly, clearly unhappy with the way things were going.

Naruto and Harō approached the kunai and shuriken crates, quickly loading their pouches with the weapons. Fū walked over to the wall of weapons and pulled several umbrellas from their perch, checking to make sure they were fully equipped with senbon. She placed those in the red case on her back, the handles up, and then filled her own weapons pouch with extra senbon. As Harō went to examine the weapons, she turned and flashed Kakuzu a victorious grin. "Told ya I'd find a use for this thing."

"Congratulations," he deadpanned, "it only took you a year to do so. Bring whatever food from here that you can carry. I refuse to waste any money on pampering you brats while we are within Konoha."

"Ah, that's not necessary, Kakuzu-san," interrupted Harō, walking toward him while strapping a pair of katana – each with two smaller, oppositely curved metal pieces (approximately two inches in length), one near the base, the second close to the tip – to his back. "Pein-sama has provided me with the funds we'll need in order to survive behind enemy lines."

"Very well," conceded Kakuzu after a moment. "Come, let us depart." He turned around and led the way out of the hideout, Naruto, Fū, and Harō following not far behind.

The trip to the center of the Land of Fire, where the Hidden Leaf was located, was far more active than Fū would have expected. Harō – who had no previous biases about anyone in the group – remained noticeably silent, observing his new teammates with growing curiosity. However, the thrill of the Chūnin Exams had apparently instilled an even greater sense of mischief within Naruto than she had thought possible.

"So we get to call you Kakuzu-sensei now, right?" Naruto asked eagerly. He was a bit too enthusiastic with his questioning, in Fū's opinion; Kakuzu already hated honorifics tacked upon his name, and being reminded of it – if the last three times were any indication – did not improve his increasingly sour mood. Wearing clothes he was uncomfortable with and being sent on a mission that he was not in control of seemed to shorten Kakuzu's already dangerously short temper. She noticed Harō watching the scene play out from the corner of his eye.

"No," Kakuzu answered in a clipped tone.

"Aww, c'mon!" Naruto continued to egg, "We need it to solidify our team disguise!"


Harō cleared his throat. "Actually, it would be practical to refer to you as our sensei, in order to not appear suspicious to any Konoha-nin."

Kakuzu remained silent for a long moment, appearing to fight the urge to do something detrimental to the mission, like killing Harō or Naruto. "Only when we reach the village," he finally growled.

They settled down that night in a large clearing Kakuzu estimated to be 20 miles away from the village. The bounty hunter told his team that they would arrive sometime in the afternoon the next day. Harō and Fū merely nodded, but Naruto chirped, "Okay, Kakuzu-sensei!"

Fū thought that, in the dead silence of the clearing, she could almost hear the final snap of Kakuzu's frayed, hair-thin temper.

Kakuzu's arm detached, quicker than lightning, and grabbed a surprised Naruto around the neck. The blond's arms flailed wildly as Kakuzu dragged him closer; black threads erupted from beneath the bandages over his wrist and wrapped themselves around Naruto's arms, binding them to his body. Harō took a step forward and began to withdraw his swords, but Fū placed a forceful hand on his shoulder and shook her head; Naruto needed to learn this lesson.

The two watched as Kakuzu brought Naruto right up to his face, the rebreather he was forced to wear the only thing separating the two. "Listen well, brat," Kakuzu hissed, his muffled voice coming out even lower and more dangerous than anyone present expected. "I have tolerated your foolishness far longer than I should have, and this childish wordplay and immaturity will cease immediately. You should be grateful for the fact that we have embarked on a dangerous mission that we know next-to-nothing about, where you get all the benefits and I am forced to engage in a battle I might not be completely prepared for."

He lowered his voice further, so Harō and Fū could no longer hear him. "I never had intention of taking a pupil until I was confronted by you. Now, after steeping years of time and money into your tutoring, I expect you to act like the shinobi you have been raised to be. You are the carrier of Jiongu, a technique few alive have even heard of, you possess the chakra capacity and abilities of a powerful shinobi, and I have bestowed upon you the resources necessary to survive and thrive within this hell of a world. Must I resort to more drastic measures in order to drill home this lesson?"

Naruto had stopped struggling once Kakuzu's diatribe had begun, and now he stared at the tall ninja with wide, blue eyes. "You trained me?" he asked reflexively, even as his mind traced the truth in his teacher's words. Shame began to flood his body, causing him to slump forward in defeat. He's right…Kakuzu was the first person to ever treat me like I was a person rather than a piece of dirt. I owe him a lot…the least I can do is show him some respect.

"The best-taught lessons come from personal investment without outside influence," Kakuzu told him. When he noticed that Naruto seemed to understand his point, the black tendrils around his pupil loosened. "I presume that you have learned your lesson?" The blond nodded slightly. "Good." Now sufficiently calm, Kakuzu started to place the boy down, but then seemed to think better of it. He pitched his arm back and then threw Naruto forward, releasing the blond so he impacted head-first into a tree 20 feet away.

"Ah, Kakuzu-san, that doesn't seem like the way to treat your student."

Kakuzu scowled. "Zetsu…I thought you had errands to run."

"This one ended up being the most prudent," replied Zetsu, stepping out from the tree and right over Naruto. "You almost hit me with him," he whined.

"My apologies," Kakuzu deadpanned. "It appears that I will have to work on my aim in the future. Why are you here?"

"We had to finalize plans for the passes which will allow you entry into the Konoha," the plant-man said, handing Kakuzu four slips of paper. "We had some help acquiring those," he admitted. Naruto, pulling himself to his feet, glanced into the copse of trees behind him and caught sight of a blood-red pair of eyes before they melded into the darkness.

Itachi, thought Naruto, turning his attention back to the conversation. Whatever needed to be said had apparently been said, though, for Zetsu immediately disappeared into the ground. Naruto thought he might've heard the plant-man's lighter side laughing – at what, he didn't know – but brushed it off as a trick of his imagination.

"Your passes," Kakuzu said, handing them each one of the slips of paper. On it was their respective headshot, along with their name, village affiliation, and the fact that they had permission to enter the Hidden Leaf for participation in the Chūnin Exams.

Naruto looked at the name on his paper and frowned. "Why is my name 'Shinobu'?"

His question prompted Fū into examining her own pass. The girl also frowned before looking over Harō's shoulder; the frown grew deeper. "My name's 'Kazu'…why does Harō get to keep his name?"

Kakuzu pinched the spot between his eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger, massaging the growing headache and rage that he was still nursing from his tantrum with Naruto. "It is possible that either of you might be recognized by name – or even appearance, disguises aside – during our stay in Konohagakure. I can only conclude that it was decided you would be forced to use aliases, just in case someone from your former villages recognize you. Harō is an unknown entity, and thus could keep his own name because there is no potential danger to the mission. My name has also been altered." He held up his own pass so they could see that he had been registered as 'Izo'; underneath that, he was identified as a Jōnin instructor. "I am no more pleased about it than you are, however, we must play the roles we are assigned…for now."

He sighed, the breath coming out frustrated. "Upon our arrival in Konoha, we shall use the names we have been given. You will refer to me as…Izo-sensei." The bounty hunter almost spat the name, as if it were a curse. When he turned away and stalked into the nearby foliage muttering expletives, the three teammates took that as the cue that they were to go to sleep.

The quartet was up and walking just after dawn the following day. Not long after noon, they arrived at the large, welcoming gates of the Hidden Leaf Village. The Chūnin guards at the gate asked them for their passports, checked the papers, and waved them through. Kakuzu muttered something about 'lax security' when they were out of earshot, and both Naruto and Fū forced themselves to hide their grins.

The remainder of the day was slow. Kakuzu followed a group of Grass shinobi to the hotel that was designated for all incoming foreign ninja. As they walked through the city, the three children tried not to gape in awe at the sights, their heads turning every which way to better see the village.

Kakuzu went directly to his room upon reaching the hotel, closing and locking the door behind him. His three students collapsed upon their own beds, stripping off some of their more cumbersome clothing. The bounty hunter had kept them moving at a brisk pace all morning with almost no rest or food; despite their training and stamina, the foreign clothes and the Land of Fire's humidity made for uncomfortable traveling conditions. Tired, and unwilling to press their luck in dealing with Kakuzu, the three relaxed around their room until evening and then went to bed.

When Naruto awoke the next day, it was to sunlight streaming in through a small slit in the window curtains, and not the standard kick from his teacher. He yawned loudly, opening bleary eyes to watch Fū step out of the bathroom in her Rain ninja outfit. Harō's bed was empty, and the connecting door to Kakuzu's room was open, presenting its emptiness as well. Scratching his head, he yawned once more, shooting Fū a confused look. "Harō left to explore the city a little bit; Kakuzu's working on gathering information about the exams for us," she explained.

"Ah," he responded, tongue and mind still thick with sleep. "How 'bout I shower and dress and then we go explore?"

"Sounds good."

It took half an hour for Naruto to prepare for the day, mostly due to the fact that he didn't want to wear the full head covering to hide his blond hair. The pair wandered the village, taking more time than they had the previous day to observe its citizens and establishments. Naruto, who hadn't seen Konoha since he had left seven years prior, found the walk quieter than he remembered. It took a moment to realize that the villagers – whom before would scowl, curse at him, and whisper about him – merely ignored him. He wasn't sure whether to view the lack of attention as a positive sign or not.

He did find it strange that Kakuzu's training seemed to have permanently imbedded itself into his brain. When he and Fū passed a training field where a Genin team was training with a tall, silver-haired man, a voice that sounded suspiciously like the bounty hunter's whispered in his mind: Hatake Kakashi, known as Kopī Ninja no Kakashi and Sharingan no Kakashi, rumored to have copied more than 1,000 ninjutsu techniques. Genin at 5, Chūnin at 6, Jōnin at 13, and ANBU member for several years afterwards; he possesses extraordinary insight and analytical abilities, and has a claim on his head in almost every nation. He is worth 80 million ryō.

Naruto shook his head to clear the string of information from it. While useful, he – and to a more worrying extent, Kakuzu – couldn't bounty hunt within Konoha's walls without giving away their underlying purpose for being there. A growl of frustration ripped from his throat when they passed another team standing outside a barbeque restaurant, the voice murmuring: Sarutobi Asuma, son of the Sandaime Hokage, former member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja, Fūton affinity. His head is worth 35 million ryō.

After another three internal monologues of people he recognized from the Bingo Book, Naruto quit fighting the feeling. He supposed that, once they were outside the city's walls, his ability to remember such important information would prove invaluable, though it was a little annoying right now. It was only after eating a hearty lunch at Ichiraku Ramen that Naruto's 'Bingo Book sense' came across a peculiarity.

Fū nudged him when he stopped in the middle of the road, eyes set on a far-off figure that appeared to be walking towards them on its hands. As the person neared, Naruto identified him – for the person was definitely masculine – as possessing a horrible bowl-cut of black hair set over thick black eyebrows, wearing a solid green spandex jumpsuit and orange legwarmers. Maito Gai, taijutsu specialist, began the voice, but as it blathered on and the person neared, Naruto's own thought of, I thought he'd be taller… surfaced.

The blond didn't even seem to register the fact that 'Maito Gai' had come within speaking distance of him and Fū. "Yosh!" cried the hand-walker. "Excuse me, Ame-nin-san, but you appear to be blocking my path." He jumped to his feet, bowing low. "I assume you are here for the Chūnin Exams; is there something I can help you with?"

"Are you Maito Gai?" Naruto asked impulsively.

The green-clad boy's eyes immediately overflowed with tears. "YOSH! Gai-sensei's legacy has spread even to the water-logged fields of Amegakure! I am proud to hear that his accomplishments have gone so far!" One of Naruto's eyebrows started twitching, and Fū felt a large sweatdrop rolling down the side of her face. "Alas, I fear you have made a mistake! My name is Rock Lee, and I am Konoha's Beautiful Green Beast! And who are you?"

"Na— un! Shinobu," corrected the blond, shooting Fū a grateful glance for catching his mistake. He rubbed his ribs where she had nudged him, perhaps a little stronger than necessary.

"Kazu," added Fū, inclining her head slightly. "We'd better be on our way. It was nice to meet you, Rock Lee."

"You as well, Kazu and Shinobu of Amegakure!" shouted Lee exuberantly. "May your Springtime of Youth never fade!" Lee then flipped over onto his hands and continued his walk through the village, the two Jinchūriki watching him go.

"…He's…strange," commented Fū at length. Naruto could only nod mutely.

Discovering the peculiarity of the Genin of the Hidden Leaf was the first strange incidence of the day. Naruto could safely say he was glad he had gotten out of the village before he had been infected with whatever turned normal ninja into that. Lee was someone to watch out for, though; in the ninja world, the stronger a shinobi was, the more peculiarities he had to compensate for the types of missions he went on. Kakuzu and Kisame, at the very least, fit into that stereotype extremely well.

The second problem the two Jinchūriki encountered that day came in the form of three Sand ninja they ran into on the way back to the hotel. The tallest of the three was a male wearing a full black body suit with a black hood and purple face paint, and possessed a bulky, bandaged package on his back. His female companion wore her dirty blonde hair in four pigtails in the back, along with a pale lavender outfit and fishnet stockings, and wielded a giant battle fan. However, it was the third, shortest member of the trio that ended up causing the problem.

He possessed hair the color of dried blood and skin the same hue as Harō's. His clothing consisted of a black body suit shorter than the other boy's, the sleeves going only halfway down his biceps; from the edge of the sleeves to just above the elbow he wore fishnet. A long white sash hung over his right shoulder and crossed his body to his left hip, the loose ends of the sash moving in the breeze. From his left shoulder to the other hip crossed a brown, leather band – similar to Kisame's, Naruto noted – with multiple buckles; connected to the leather was a large gourd with black markings on it. Black sandals covered his feet, and bandages were wrapped around his ankles. A tattoo with the kanji for 'love' was imprinted upon his forehead, and dead teal eyes peered out from within black-rimmed sockets.

The red-haired male stopped suddenly when they were about to cross paths with Naruto and Fū, causing his two teammates to stop as well. He stared at the pair intently for a solid thirty seconds before Fū groaned and clutched her stomach in pain. SHUKAKU, buzzed a voice in her head before lapsing into silence.

"You," spoke the redhead with a voice as dry as the desert. Naruto wasn't sure whether the boy was talking to himself or Fū, but hearing him say the single word gave him the creeps; it was like talking to Itachi, only his own age. "You're like me." His teal eyes were focused on Fū, and Naruto became distinctly uncomfortable with the gaze on his friend; the boy's two teammates also seemed rather nervous at the initiation of conversation. "I will kill you to validate my existence," he finished. Naruto gulped; the way he said it, the proclamation was a fact, like if Kakuzu walked up to him and said 'I like money'. He'd never met an individual so prepossessed with surety.

Naruto's fists clenched, and he stepped forward slightly in order to partially shield Fū from view. "You can try," he uttered with more confidence than he felt, "but you won't succeed."

Not a flicker of emotion passed over the other boy's face. "You have a strong will," he said after a moment, "but that will not be enough to save you. Or her. When we meet in the Chūnin Exams, you will die." His piece said, the redhead and his two teammates continued on their way.

When they passed Naruto, the blond felt a stirring in his mind, as if something in there was restless. "What's your name?" he asked, trying to calm the unease he felt in his body.

"…Sabaku no Gaara," answered the redhead. "You and your Ame-nin brethren will satisfy Mother." Naruto didn't have anything to say in response, and so Gaara and his two teammates walked on, the blond's bright blue eyes on them until they disappeared around a corner.

"C'mon," Naruto prodded, helping the recovering Fū get to her feet. "Let's get back to the hotel and tell Ka— Izo-sensei about our new friend." Together they managed to get back to their room without any more distractions, the green-haired girl recovering from her brief bout of pain just inside the front doors.

Upon reaching their room, Naruto noticed that neither Kakuzu nor Harō had returned. He guided his companion to her bed and helped her sit down, despite protests that she was fine. Naruto sat down across from her and eyed her speculatively. "What was that?"

"I'm guessing an insane Genin native to Suna," Fū replied snippily.

Naruto shot her a look. "Not him, you. What was with the sudden stomach pain?" he clarified. There was a brief pause before he slowly added, "Come to think of it, you had the same reaction when we met."

Fū shrugged. "The beetle likes to talk to me sometimes."

"The bee— I have an idea," Naruto broke off. He settled himself into a cross-legged position, holding out his hands palms-down. "Grab my hands and close your eyes," he ordered. She complied, clasping their hands together and allowing her eyelids to flutter shut. Naruto closed his own eyes and evened out his breathing, settling into a meditation technique that Kisame had taught him early on in their training.

The blond had visited his mindscape once before, after falling unconscious upon his summoning of the Chameleon Boss. Then it had been an accident, a byproduct of chakra loss and exhaustion. This time, he was attempting to accomplish an even more daring feat: entering his mindscape intentionally, and also bringing someone with him.

After several minutes, Naruto opened his eyes. He was ankle-deep in sewer water, hands clasped firmly with Fū's. "Hey," he whispered, "we're here." The green-haired girl opened her orange orbs, gazing around in a mixture of awe and disgust.

They stood in the sewer water that she assumed was indicative of Naruto's mindscape. Over Naruto's shoulder she could see a field of wilted flowers, the sign of her own mindscape. About 200 feet beyond her lay a series of honey-colored bars set up in a beehive shape. Held within the cage was huge creature, possessing a blue upper body with a thick carapace, under which were set six multi-jointed limbs, each ending in a green, serrated hand. Large, horn-like extensions jutted forth from each shoulder, its head, and its upper and middle back; a pair of wickedly sharp mandibles was connected to a helmet-like structure which hid the creature's eyes. The creature's thorax was colored a bright green, separating into seven tail-like appendages, six of which had red, orange, and yellow wings sprouting from them. Fū scowled – this was the home of her Bijū, the Seven-Tailed Horned Beetle which had made her life miserable for as long as she could remember. "FŪ…KYŪBI," he buzzed, his raspy voice turning angrier at the second name.

Kyūbi? thought Fū, confused. Then she heard the roar.


Wide-eyed, Fū whipped around and laid claim to the sight of a giant – larger than the Nanabi – nine-tailed fox, with a red-orange pelt and cruel, intelligent, blood-red eyes, held beyond jail cell bars. The fox raised one giant paw and crashed it through the gate, coming within ten feet of the Jinchūriki's position. "DAMN THIS SEAL. DAMN THE YONDAIME HOKAGE. I WOULD RIP YOU TO SHREDS IF IT WEREN'T FOR THIS ACCURSED SEAL," he growled, frustrated. Naruto stepped in front of Fū, as if to shield her from the Kyūbi. The movement also afforded Fū the opportunity to avert her eyes without appearing weak. Something to the right caught her attention, and she focused upon it while Naruto had a staring contest with the Bijū within him.

Out of her periphery, she had absently noticed that the area to her left seemed to be an endless expanse of hallway. To the right, about 15 feet after the caged bars ended, was a mass of black threads that spanned the entire hallway, completely obstructing the path. Thick strands branched out and connected to the wall, ceiling, and floor, stabilizing the entire web-like structure. In the center of the web were two masks: one with blue markings in the shape of a hippo, the second a bear mask with red designs. The strange web design, Fū guessed, was probably representative of Naruto's Jiongu ability. Etched in the foot of stone at the top of the hallway were crude pictures of chameleons, the internal representation of Naruto's connection to the Chameleon Summoning Contract.

The female Jinchūriki refocused her attention on Naruto and the Kyūbi in time to hear the beast growl, "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, CHILD? I HAVE LITTLE REASON OR MOTIVATION TO GRANT YOU ASSISTANCE, UNLESS I AM SOMEHOW BENEFITED BY IT. AND WHY IS THE FLY HERE?"


A low, throaty sound emerged from the Kyūbi, and it took both Jinchūriki a moment to realize the giant fox was chuckling. "IF THOSE ARE YOUR BOASTS, YOU ARE MORE PATHETIC THAN I REMEMBER. GET THIS DUST MITE OUT OF MY SIGHT, CHILD," demanded the Nine-Tails.

"No," Naruto responded stubbornly, "we need to talk to both of you. This is the most convenient way to do so."



"What's 'Shukaku'?" interrupted Fū. The two bickering demons fell silent at the question. "When we came across that Gaara guy, you said 'Shukaku'," she stated slowly, turning to face her Bijū. "What's 'Shukaku'? I want to know if it's a threat to our mission."

Both Bijū began to laugh, Kyūbi's deep and sinister, Nanabi's raspy and grating. "SHUKAKU IS HARDLY A THREAT," the fox chuckled. "THAT RUNT MAY POSE A CHALLENGE TO YOU MERE MORTALS, BUT TO US, SHUKAKU IS NOTHING."

"SHUKAKU IS THE WEAKEST OF US ALL," agreed the beetle.

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "'Of us all'…" he repeated. "Shukaku's a Bijū?"

Fū slammed one fist into the other palm. "Of course!" she cried. "Gaara said that I'm just like him; he's a Jinchūriki, too!"



"So Gaara's also a Jinchūriki," pondered Fū. "We'll have to watch out for him."

Naruto nodded his agreement. "But why did he only sense your Bijū?" he asked, turning to face his companion. She didn't have an answer for him.



"Not that I like to take advantage of that little ability," Fū replied dryly.

"WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT, THE EASE WITH WHICH WE TALK HAS COME IN HANDY. CERTAINLY THE SIDE EFFECTS ARE ENTERTAINING TO WITNESS." Fū clutched her stomach in memory of the phantom pain she had experienced prior, the pain she felt whenever her Tailed Beast conversed with her.

And then Fū and the Seven-Tails disappeared from view. The Kyūbi was soon to follow.

"I apologize for putting an end to this rather heartfelt display of affection," spoke a new voice, sounding completely unsympathetic. Naruto groaned; he could recognize the dry, cynical tone of Kakuzu even in his sleep.

"It wasn't affection," protested Naruto, cracking his stiff neck. "We were—" he suddenly noticed Harō standing beside his teacher "—meditating to help compile what we know about the exams." Kakuzu's facial expression didn't seem to change, but Naruto identified skepticism and curiosity within the even stare the tall ninja leveled him with.

"Call it what you will, brat," responded Kakuzu, choosing not to probe just yet. The bounty hunter then proceeded to tell his three students about what he'd uncovered during the day – that the Chūnin Exams consisted of three parts: the first was some form of written test, the second a survival portion, and the third a tournament between competitors. "I have exhausted my patience with collecting intelligence for you," he said when finished, "and as such, I have no desire to assist you anymore." He seemed to believe they could interpret the unspoken threat, for he turned on his heel and walked into his room, slamming the door behind him.

The three children could only exchange looks and shrug.

After Harō left the room the next morning, Naruto knocked lightly on Kakuzu's door. The bounty hunter growled, "What?" from inside his conclave.

Naruto gulped and hesitated before answering. "Er…can we talk?" When there was no response, Naruto chose to take the silence as a 'yes'. He opened the door slowly, using it as a shield in case he had misinterpreted his teacher's intentions.

"Your meditation," Kakuzu began once Naruto had closed the door, "was what I presume to be a conversation with your Bijū." Naruto bobbed his head in affirmation. "Speak."

Naruto remained standing, telling Kakuzu about his and Fū's confrontation with Sabaku no Gaara, the ensuing talk with the Kyūbi and the Nanabi, and the deduction that Gaara was the container of another Tailed Beast. Once his tale was done, Naruto watched Kakuzu silently mull over the information.

Finally, the tall ninja said, "Our employer informed me that there would be another Jinchūriki present in the exams, but I admit that I was not told any other information beyond that. However, he is not your objective; you are to get as far as possible in the exams to make my movements around the village inconspicuous and give us as much access to Konoha as possible. Avoid this Gaara child if possible, lest you slip up and reveal more of your abilities than strictly necessary."

Realizing that his teacher was done talking, Naruto nodded in understanding before leaving the room and going to rejoin Fū to pass on the message.

The days until the Chūnin Exams began seemed to drag on, but after what felt like forever, Naruto found himself walking through the village with Fū and Harō at his side. They arrived at Konoha's Ninja Academy and were soon caught up in the swarm of students gathered outside room 301. "What's going on?" Naruto whispered to Fū, who was the tallest on their team. "We only came up one flight of stairs…"

Fū stood on tiptoe to get a better view. "Two ninja are guarding the entrance. They just kicked that Rock Lee kid away…and some other girl, too," she added after a moment.

"We should wait for someone else to notice," Harō advised quietly, "so as to not give away our skill level." Naruto remembered Kakuzu's words about avoiding Gaara to keep their power hidden and nodded his agreement.

It only took ten seconds before a raven-haired boy in blue stepped forward. "I will pass," he declared, "once you remove that illusion you've placed on the doorway." Muted whispering followed this announcement, partially muffling the boy's baton-pass to a pink-haired girl, who took over the explanation of why the scene was an illusion.

The sign above the door morphed before the crowd's eyes to read '201'. Naruto nodded his head towards the door. "Let's go," he said, weaving through the throng of Genin. He and his two teammates went through the hallway as Rock Lee and his teammates fell into an argument with the raven-haired kid and his pink-haired teammate. "Well, that's one obstacle avoided," Naruto observed.

They entered a large room filled with long benches and Chūnin-hopefuls. Naruto glanced around; just as Kakuzu had said, Genin from the Leaf, Sand, Grass, Rain, and Waterfall were present in varying quantities, as well as what appeared to be a single team with the strange musical note headbands. The blond wanted to say something, but Fū had taken to trying to hide herself and Harō's gaze was half-lidded with boredom. "What're you doing?" he demanded quietly of Fū.

"You've been gone from your home village for a long time," she whispered fiercely, "and with your outfit, the odds of them recognizing you are slim. I've only been gone from Taki for a year, and my outfit isn't nearly as concealing as yours!"

"…Okay, I see your point, but you're making yourself stand out more by trying to be inconspicuous!" he retorted. The Nanabi Jinchūriki straightened herself slightly, but continued to use Naruto as a shield. The blond sighed at his friend's antics, but chose to ignore her and scanned the room instead, noting that Lee and his team had entered the room.

"Sasuke-kun!" squealed a girl in a purple top and skirt outfit with platinum blonde hair. She leaped onto the back of the raven-haired boy – who had entered the room with his team behind Lee – and hooked her arms around his neck. While flames seemed to erupt in the eyes of the pink-haired girl, two more boys meandered through the crowd towards the ensuing argument.

Just like the day he and Fū met Rock Lee and Sabaku no Gaara, Naruto's mind instantly snapped to 'Bingo Book mode'…except this time, the voice that sounded like Kakuzu spoke about identities rather than numbers. The platinum blonde was a Yamanaka, one of the members of Sarutobi Asuma's team and part of a family proficient in mental manipulations. The two boys who had approached the group – one with hair tied up in a style reminiscent of a pineapple, the other a somewhat chubby lad munching on chips – were her two teammates, a Nara and an Akimichi, respectively. Nara clan members were notorious for their mastery over shadows, and the Akimichi were able to manipulate the sizes of their body and body part to do battle.

If the boy that the Yamanaka was fawning over really was 'Sasuke-kun', then he was the last, loyal member of the prominent Uchiha clan, and one of Hatake Kakashi's students. From what he had read and learned from Kakuzu and Ryo, the Uchiha were to be respected for their skill and kekkei genkai, the Sharingan; even as a Genin, he would have to be watched out for. His two teammates, the pink-haired girl with emerald green eyes and a pale-skinned, black-haired boy in black (who bore a passing resemblance to the Uchiha, Naruto noticed) didn't bear any noticeable clan markings or attributes that Naruto could pinpoint as belonging to a specific clan.

A third team approached, all of its members identifiable. The female had the dark hair and pale, lavender eyes of the legendary Hyūga, renowned worldwide for their unique taijutsu style. Next to her stood a brunette with the red, fang-like facial markings of the Inuzuka; the small white dog sitting atop his head confirmed his affiliation. Their third teammate wore a long overcoat (much like Kakuzu) and dark sunglasses typical of the several Aburame pictured in the Bingo Book.

Naruto's eyes found Lee's green jumpsuit in the crowd and noted the Hyūga features of Lee's male teammate, though this one seemed more haughty and arrogant than the female; she wore a pink shirt and possessed hair styled in two buns atop her head. Like Sasuke's two teammates and Lee, she had no recognizable clan features. Naruto could only assume that the entire team was well-versed in taijutsu, since their instructor was the famed Maito Gai.

The blond was pulled from his thoughts as the door slammed open, revealing a tall, blocky man with two large scars across his face. Similar to Naruto, he wore a hitae-ate that fully covered his head, and the blond was forced to wonder what he was hiding underneath; he scratched at the head covering in irritation of the reminder that he had to remain disguised.

"Silence, maggots!" barked the newcomer, a group of gray-suited ninja filing in behind him. "My name is Morino Ibiki, and I am the proctor for the first exam. If you'll all turn in your applications and take a number, you can find your corresponding seat and we can get started with the written test." Several groans greeted this announcement, but all the Chūnin-hopefuls formed lines and exchanged applications for numbers.

It took awhile, but soon enough, Naruto found himself seated on the right side of the room, in a seat with a random Konoha-nin to his left and the Hyūga girl to his right. From the corner of his eye, he caught her twiddling her fingers nervously, but chose to ignore her in favor of looking for his teammates. Fū sat four rows in front of him, and three seats to the right; Harō was on the left side of the room, one row in front of him and two seats from the left wall.

Ibiki began speaking again, his tone gruff and no-nonsense. "Listen carefully, maggots. There are several rules to this exam, and I'm not going to repeat them or take any questions. Now, each person begins with 10 points, and each question on the test is worth one point. If you get all the questions right, you keep your 10 points; if you get three questions wrong, your score is seven points.

"Second, you will be scored as a team. If anyone on the team receives a zero, the entire team will fail. Third, if any of the proctors catch you cheating, you'll lose two points for each occurrence – meaning that if you're caught five times, you will fail this exam," he enunciated carefully. He allowed a brief silence to fall over the crowd of Genin in order to allow them to digest this information before continuing, "The tenth question will be given 45 minutes after the exam has started. You have an hour to complete the exam." Ibiki gazed around the room, eyes hard as diamonds. "Begin!"

There was a rustle as the Genin all flipped over their papers, the scribbling of pencils against parchment sounding from only a couple of ninja. Naruto scrutinized the paper carefully, skimming over the nine questions. He scowled after taking a minute to read through the questions; all of them seemed ridiculously difficult, though Naruto supposed that was probably the point. Shrugging slightly, the undercover Genin focused his attention on the first question, an encryption. Fortunately, Kakuzu had taught him the logic behind decoding ciphers, and he quickly went to work.

Fū sat at her desk, thinking. She had answered the sixth question, one regarding economics and the best way to regulate funds for a mission in a strange area (she was sure Kakuzu would have her head if she missed that one), when she realized how ridiculous the test was. She had only been able to answer that question because of rigorous training under Kakuzu, and she knew that no one else had undergone the same regimen she (and to a greater extent, Naruto) had.

Unlike Naruto, who had no experience of a Hidden Village's Academy program, Fū had some idea of what was taught in school. Questions of this magnitude had little to no chance of being answered by mere Genin. Cheating violations were also punished much harsher in school than in the rules the proctor had set forth. The only explanation was that the test required the Genin to cheat in order to get the answers.

She tapped her pencil against her paper repetitively, using the monotony of the sound to concentrate. Naruto was reasonably intelligent and would be able to solve some of the questions…Harō seemed to be smart enough…but there were better methods to pass the test.

There were few occasions where Fū was grateful to be the container to the Seven-Tailed Horned Beetle; this was one of them. The Nanabi's abilities allowed her to manipulate dust on any scale, and the convenient thing about that was that dust particles existed in minute amounts in the air. She twirled the pencil in her hand, collecting a small, barely visible cloud of dust around the tip, then sent it out. Her target was the male Genin at the end of her row, in the aisle seat; his hand had not stopped moving since Ibiki had called for the test to begin.

Fifteen minutes passed, during which Fū stared steadfastly at her paper, trying to see if there was anything else she could solve. Once she had allowed the quarter of an hour to pass, she recalled the dust to her; it settled on her paper in a layer thick enough to read the male Genin's writing. Fū scribbled down the answers and then collected more dust to her, allowing it to settle around the shallow markings her pencil lead had made.

The green-haired girl sent the two dust clouds flying surreptitiously towards Naruto and Harō. Imbued with her chakra, they would settle on her teammates' papers and give them all the answers.

Fū looked up at the clock – 35 minutes had passed since the start of the test. She could only pray that when the tenth question was delivered in 10 minutes, there would be no other game-changing rules alongside it.

Naruto looked up at the clock and frowned. Ten minutes before the tenth question, and he had managed to answer two more questions: one about economics (Kakuzu would've killed him for missing that, he thought, unknowingly echoing Fū's sentiment) and another about the founding history of the Five Great Shinobi Nations.

An obscene amount of dust seemed to settle on his paper – frustrated, he blew it away and glared at his test. The dust particles coalesced onto the test again, and he blew them away for a second time. When the dust came back for a third time, Naruto remembered that Fū's Bijū allowed her control over the substance. This time, he allowed the dust to form a film on his paper, spelling out the answers to the questions in Fū's neat scrawl.

Taking advantage of his friend's skill, Naruto went to work copying the answers and eventually finished with only a couple of minutes to spare. He breathed a mental sigh of relief, turned over his paper, and linked his fingers together, stretching them out and cracking the knuckles. The blond took the moment to eye the room. While he had been writing answers, a good chunk of ninja had failed the exam – Naruto counted at least 10 teams absent.

Ibiki stepped forward after another minute, announcing, "Before the tenth question is distributed, there is a stipulation." When he had everyone's attention, he continued, "You have a choice in whether or not you want to take the tenth question. If you choose not to take it, you and your teammates will fail, immediately. However, if you take it and get it wrong…you will be permanently banned from participating in the Chūnin Exams ever again."

He was immediately interrupted by the Inuzuka. "What kinda crap is that?" demanded the brunette, getting to his seat and pointing at Ibiki. "There're people here who've taken the Chūnin Exams before!"

The proctor let out a bark of laughter. "I wasn't the proctor for those tests. Now that I'm in charge, the rules have changed. If you choose to take this question and fail, you will remain a Genin forever. If you don't want to take the question, raise your hand and one of the examiners will take down your number. Then you and your teammates are free to leave."

Silence reigned for several seconds before the first trembling hand rose into the air. The Konoha-nin next to Naruto rose slowly. "I quit! I can't take it!" he shouted.

One of the Chūnin examiners scribbled something on his sheet of paper. "Numbers 111 and 130, you fail alongside Number 50."

That one action was like a catalyst. Hands from all over the room shot up, and numbers were methodically called out, alongside the words, "You fail. Please leave the room."

Then, the unthinkable happened. Naruto, bored with the proceedings, yawned.

Ibiki's gaze snapped over to the blond in the blink of an eye. "Do you find this boring, Ame-nin?" the proctor queried with false patience.

Naruto supposed that, in his own way, Ibiki was a rather scary individual. The only problem was that Naruto had been raised by Kakuzu and, to a shorter extent, Kisame, both of whom were hardcore, S-Class missing-nin who believed in intimidation and lessons filled with pain above all else. Compared to them, Morino Ibiki was like a fledgling bird just learning to fly.

"Honestly, yes," he replied in a bored tone. "I'm sure on some level your threat is meant to be scary, but I'm just not buying it. Sorry for interrupting your fun, but if we could get on with this, I would really appreciate it."

If Ibiki was surprised by Naruto's response, he didn't show it. His stony face scanned the room, trying to intimidate anyone else into leaving, but all the Genin, even some of the weaker ones, stood their ground. Cocky kid, he thought. "Congratulations. All of you in this room have passed the first portion of the Chūnin Exams."

"What about the tenth question?" someone asked. Naruto turned around and spied the Uchiha's pink-haired teammate with her hands planted squarely on the bench.

Ibiki smiled, causing the blond to shudder. Certain people should not be allowed to do that! "There was no tenth question. Or, if you prefer, choosing to stay or leave was the tenth question."

Naruto ignored Ibiki's explanation regarding the first nine questions, the importance of information on missions, and how false information could drastically hurt a village. He perked up slightly when Ibiki took off his head covering, revealing burn marks and screw holes, signs of torture from missions past, but went back to zoning out when Ibiki continued his diatribe.

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki was brought back to wakefulness by the sounding of shattering glass – a large bundle had come through one of the windows and was currently in the process of unrolling. Standing in front of a large banner which read 'Second Examiner, Mitarashi Anko is here' was a purple-haired woman in an open, tan trenchcoat, wearing mostly fishnet for clothing. "I am the Second Examiner, Mitarashi Anko," she announced needlessly. "Let's go to the next exam! Follow me!"

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