The Cost of Living


Naruto leaped from one tree branch to the next, Harō and Fū not far behind. The second round of the Chūnin Exams had begun only three hours before, and so far the team had simply ventured deeper into the forest, not a word exchanged among the three.

The premise of this phase was rather simple. Mitarashi Anko, the (arguably insane) second proctor of the Chūnin Exams, had told the remaining teams that each of them would receive one of two scrolls: Heaven or Earth. Starting from separate gates, the teams would then enter Training Ground 44, otherwise known as the Forest of Death. To pass the second round, it was necessary to arrive at the castle in the center of the forest with both scrolls, meaning that they would have to intercept another team and take its scroll.

It wasn't really a problem, of course. The probability that any team they ran into would have the scroll they needed was fifty-fifty, so the plan of attack was to simply find a team, take it out, check the scroll, and hope that it was the opposite of what they were carrying.

Naruto wondered if the exam could really be any simpler. Yes, the whole idea was theoretically a test of teamwork and strength, but Naruto and Fū had both undergone training with Kakuzu, an S-class missing-nin. And Harō had apparently been brought up under the guidance of some great leader whom even Kakuzu seemed to know something of, if not grudgingly respected.

The real issue puzzling Naruto was what they were doing in the Chūnin Exams in the first place. He wasn't complaining; the Exams did present a great opportunity to observe the Hidden Leaf denizens and defenses for his eventual vengeance. But Kakuzu had proven time and again that he was not a man to go back on his word, which meant that the blue-haired woman in the Akatsuki cloak had somehow convinced him to bring the two Jinchūriki to Konoha. By that logic, Kakuzu was taking orders from Akatsuki, though the reason why escaped him. When the blond had angered Kakuzu on the trek to the Hidden Leaf, the bounty hunter had briefly mentioned a battle he wasn't prepared for.

That was intriguing in of itself. Kakuzu was a very analytical (and arrogant) ninja, choosing bounties and chasing them only after either coming up with a solid strategy or realizing that their skills didn't even merit having one. To have agreed to a mission where he didn't yet have a plan meant that the former Taki-nin was either coerced into doing so – something Naruto found hard to believe, considering his teacher's personality – or there was some huge sum of money on the line, which equated to a very powerful target.

Naruto didn't particularly care for being left in the dark. If Kakuzu needed him and Fū (and Harō, he supposed) to remain in the Chūnin Exams, the blond wanted to know why. Of course, the odds of him getting the answer were relatively slim, but he'd be damned if he didn't at least try.

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki was brought from his internal musings as Fū shouted, "Hey!" He turned his head in time to see Harō peel off from the group on a separate trajectory. Scowling, he motioned for Fū to follow him as he twisted on his heel and took off after the Rain shinobi.

In Naruto's opinion, Harō was a wild card. Even if the blond didn't know what their exact mission was, he knew that he could rely on Fū simply because of their shared history. Harō had been trained by a completely different entity, held no formal allegiance to Kakuzu or either of his pupils, and possessed an unknown personality. Sure, he had explained his abilities, but even those didn't really tell his two teammates his skill level, or how he'd react in the face of danger…or any one of a dozen other situations Naruto could come up with, given the time.

This situation, for instance.

The two Jinchūriki found Harō crouched on a tree branch overlooking a small camp. The tips of his two katana bit into the bark of the flora and his arms were folded over the hilts, making him appear quite relaxed. Both Jinchūriki landed on the same bough, one on either side of him; Harō didn't even flinch. "What are you doing?" Naruto whispered fiercely.

Harō turned surprisingly serious grey eyes on the blond. "Look," was all he said. Naruto complied.

Far below them were three Genin, all wearing yellow outfits reminiscent of straightjackets with large 'X' stitches all down the front of their uniforms. Two of them – one with only one eye visible, the other completely blindfolded – were tending to a third teammate who bore slight burns, the only member who could see from both eyes. Privately, Naruto wondered how smart an idea it was to have only three working eyes out of a total of six, but then he disregarded the anomaly. Naruto couldn't see the symbol on their headbands signifying village affiliation from his position, but the rebreathers all of them wore meant that they were most likely from the Hidden Rain.

Fū apparently noticed, too. "Three Genin from Amegakure," she observed. "One looks injured. What's the big deal?"

Harō shot her a look of disdain. "They are Ame-nin. Hanzō's Ame-nin." Naruto caught Fū's eyes behind their teammate's back and shrugged, clearly not understanding the cobalt-haired boy's point. Harō apparently noticed Fū's confusion and elaborated, "Hanzō is Pein-sama's sworn enemy, the cause of all the strife within Amegakure. Any of his underlings are therefore the enemy of Pein-sama and must be eliminated!"

Naruto stared at the back of the boy's head. "They're only Genin," he pointed out, "hardly a threat to your cause."

"Our forces are small as it is," Harō defended through gritted teeth. "Whether Genin or Jōnin, they are opposing the path to peace within my home country, and thus must be removed before they can do more harm."


The Ame-nin stared at Naruto, his face suddenly blank. "Don't tell me that you're opposed to killing," he stated flatly.

Fū snorted. "Hardly," she muttered.

Naruto shook his head. Anko had explained that killing was allowed – practically expected – within the Forest of Death, whether by wildlife or opposing teams. All the participants had been forced to sign waivers acknowledging the fact that they could die while within Training Ground 44, though the capacity for most Genin to commit such a cold-blooded feat was rather small.

Then again, Naruto and his team were hardly 'most Genin'.

The blond had killed before, but even considering the limited experience he had with killing people himself, Kakuzu had made sure that he'd become desensitized enough to death to deal with his new profession as a bounty hunter.

And therein was the hitch. Kakuzu had taught Naruto that living a successful life meant having the money to afford the necessities, that money made the world go around. To get money – as a missing-nin anyway – one had to kill and collect the bounties placed on the heads of other ninja. But in doing so, the killing had a purpose, an intended goal that lead to the improvement of one's lifestyle. The type of killing that Harō was proposing…it was…


At least, senseless to Naruto, whose instructions were to get through the Chūnin Exams without drawing attention to himself. There was no connection between taking out the team of Hidden Rain Genin below them and staying under Konoha's radar. He'd learned that while a person's cost of living was intertwined with others' lives, his was dependent upon the blood he shed by cutting down said others.

The divergence from Kakuzu's teachings was somewhat stark – for the bounty hunter frequently killed either for the thrill or as a therapeutic tool – but Naruto was glad for the difference. Kami forbid he ever turn into a carbon copy of the former Taki-nin…

Which brought him back to the issue at hand.

Harō wasn't going to let the matter of the Rain team below pass easily. Naruto was uncomfortable with the prospect of killing the Genin for no reason other than because they were Harō's enemy…but on the other hand, they did need a scroll with which to pass the second stage of the Exams…

"We need a scroll…but no killing!" he warned Harō. "You said you had orders to obey Ka Izo-sensei," he corrected hastily. "Well right now, I'm in charge, so you have to listen to me. We're not going out of our way to make trouble."

Harō scowled, but reluctantly nodded his acceptance. Naruto shared a nod with Fū before both of them leapt in opposite directions.

The cobalt-haired boy stood, pulling his twin swords from the tree branch. The weapons weren't his, but out of all of Pein's followers, it was he who had the capacity to use them best. Apparently, one of the higher members – a Hoshigaki Kisame – had tracked down some former member of the Mist's Seven Shinobi Swordsmen and killed him, collecting the money on his head and adding the legendary Thunder Fangs to the rebels' collection of supplies. Being one of the few lightning-users within Pein's ranks, the Ame-nin had instantly been drawn to the swords and had devoted much of his free time learning to use them efficiently.

However, Harō had two unfortunate problems. The first was that he had limited to no formal kenjutsu training, so he could only use the swords effectively as a means of channeling and utilizing lightning, both chakra-natured and real (though he hadn't tried the latter yet). Kisame had taken the time to inform him of several of the lightning techniques the swords' previous owner had used; he had also handed him a scroll detailing all of said techniques (that he had apparently pilfered from the owner's hideout), but that was as far as his swordsmanship training with the Thunder Fangs went.

The bigger issue was that Harō had smaller than average chakra reserves, which, combined with the fact that Raiton was more chakra-intensive than the other elements, meant that he tended to lose stamina quicker than he should have. It was a problem he continued to try to rectify by expanding his reserves, but even still, he knew they could be larger.

Still…Harō was willing to make exceptions in certain, extenuating circumstances. Vengeance for the pain Hanzō had caused him seemed like a good reason to expend a bit of energy.

Enough time had passed for Fū and Naruto to get into position. Time to get started then, he decided. Lightning crackled around the hilts of the blades, and when Harō felt like he had accumulated enough chakra, he threw the blades into the ground on the edge of the campsite. Electricity sparked across the ground in random arrays, heading towards all three Genin as Harō shouted, "Raisō: Ikazuchi no Utage!"

The two ninja who were uninjured jumped away from the attack, while the one who was lying on the ground was forced to take the ninjutsu, his body dancing as it surged with voltage. Per Naruto's instruction, Harō had (grudgingly) toned down the power so that the technique only knocked out the target instead of killing him.

There was a clang of metal on metal as Naruto burst forth from his hiding spot and attacked the blindfolded Genin with his wakizashi, hitting a hastily drawn kunai. Apparently being blindfolded didn't hinder the enemy's sight, though it proved to be a moot point. Either the Rain Genin had no skill with close combat, or the element of surprise was much more effective than Harō estimated, for Naruto took him out with a swift taijutsu-swordplay combo.

Both boys looked for their third opponent, finding him encased in a bubble of dust held up by Fū. Naruto tried not to let his jaw drop in astonishment at how quickly Fū had managed to alter the technique Kakuzu had trapped her in a week ago to be used with her own element. "Impressed?" she asked with a smirk, setting her free hand on her hip. "Jinrō no Jutsu…not bad, huh?"

Then the Dust Prison Technique broke, letting the Rain Genin drop to the floor. The Nanabi Jinchūriki scratched the back of her head, embarrassed. It was a gesture Naruto recognized as being strangely reminiscent of himself. "Heheh…uh, whoops. Guess I don't have that jutsu perfected yet."

The one-eyed boy tried to scramble away, but Harō was too fast, zipping forward and placing the tips of the dual katana at his throat. "Your scroll," Harō demanded, voice brooking no argument. His captive pointed one trembling finger towards his unconscious, blindfolded teammate.

Naruto walked over to the boy's prone form and rooted around until he found the scroll. "Damn," he cursed, looking at the word on the front. "Earth Scroll," he told his teammates, his expression sour.

Fū sighed. "So this was a waste of time. What now?"

"We take it," Harō said. "The less teams that pass, the better the odds are for us to move forward." He channeled chakra into the swords, sending electricity pulsing into the one-eyed boy, who promptly collapsed to the dirt, motionless. "He's alive," Harō stated coldly, feeling Naruto's glare at his back.

"…Fine," the blond relented. "Let's go."

"Sabaku Kyū."

Sand slithered up Shigure's leg, quickly encasing the older Rain Genin. In short order, only Shigure's face was visible, and his entire body was lifted twenty feet into the air.

Sometimes, on the rare occasions between his constant insomnia and near-constant insanity, Gaara understood that the voice he heard in his head calling for blood was not his mother. His mother had died giving birth to him, cursing the village that had produced a Kazekage willing to seal a vicious demon into his unborn son, sacrificing his wife for the process. In those few moments of clarity, Gaara knew that the words whispered to him were from Shukaku, the One-Tailed Demon Sand Spirit. Having never known love, though, Gaara had deluded himself into believing that Shukaku was really 'Mother'.

Gaara's life had been miserable since birth. He had been the object of numerous assassination attempts, neglected by his father, his siblings – his village – because of the Bijū sealed within him. The abilities afforded by Shukaku – total control over sand, an automatic defense, an armor of sand layered atop his skin – had gone unseen since the days of the Sandaime Kazekage, who had created his famed Iron Sand techniques based off of the previous Ichibi Jinchūriki's powers.

The trade-off between his powers and the consequences of hosting the One-Tail was something that always bothered Gaara. Yes, he escaped from every mission unscathed and he possessed sand manipulation powers rivaled by none, but if ever tried sleeping, the demon consumed his personality and sanity.

That wasn't evening mentioning the insatiable bloodlust.

After living with the demon for so long, Gaara had long since become desensitized to the blood he was told to shed. Killing had become a way to verify his existence, to prove that he was still alive. It was an insane stretch of logical justification, but all Gaara wanted to do was please Mother. Mother wanted blood.

"Sabaku Sōsō."

And it rained blood.

As his sand absorbed the red fluid, Gaara turned his emotionless gaze to his victim's two teammates. While the tall Ame-nin had been an excellent sacrifice, he was not the redhead's true target.

"Here, take the scroll!" offered the one on the right, placing said object on the ground.

"Yes, please spare us!" pleaded the other one.

Gaara stared at them, watching as their bodies trembled in fear at his show of power. These Hidden Rain ninja…they were weak. They offered no challenge to the Suna-nin, merely fodder for Mother's never-ending appetite. But there was someone whom the Jinchūriki was interested in, someone who hailed from the drenched plains of Ame and who could perhaps slake Mother's thirst for blood.

The girl with the pale green hair…something was different about her. Gaara wanted to hear her scream as his sand engulfed her, crushed her bones, and drank her life. She was a challenge, one he couldn't identify. But the demon inside him wailed for her capture, cried out for the redhead to smother and kill her with nary a thought. Her death would make Mother happy…Gaara wanted to please Mother. And if the blond boy got in his way…well, the Suna-nin was sure that Mother would have no problem with an appetizer.

"I'm looking for someone. Female, light green hair, walking around with a blond. She's also from Amegakure. Tell me what you know about her and where she is," Gaara intoned.

The two remaining Rain Genin exchanged nervous looks before the one on the right spoke up. "W-we've never heard of her b-before."

A hand made of sand reached up from the ground and grasped each ninja's leg. The sand quickly encased their bodies as Gaara stretched his arms out, hands pantomiming a grabbing gesture.

"Wrong answer. Sabaku Sōsō."

As Kankurō walked forward and grabbed the scroll on the ground, Gaara turned and began to walk away. He cared little for his father's wishes regarding his part in Konoha's invasion or for passing the Chūnin Exams; he simply wanted that girl's blood.

And he would have it. "Let's go," he ordered his siblings. Temari and Kankurō exchanged a confused glance before following their younger brother out of the clearing. When Gaara was on a rampage, they'd learned that it was always best to stay away, lest they become unwilling victims.

Hidden in the bushes, Inuzuka Kiba, Aburame Shino, and Hyūga Hinata shook in terror at the spectacle they had witnessed. As they silently recovered from what had just happened, the same thought passed through each of their minds.

Kami help whoever he's looking for.

Fū jumped beside Harō as the two followed Naruto through the Forest of Death. The trio had traveled in silence since their run-in with the Rain ninja, though the quiet was rather tense in comparison to the one they'd been in before the encounter.

She twirled a senbon idly between her fingers, a habit she had adopted completely by accident. During the trek through the forest, Kakuzu had found the time to teach her the basics of a Hidden Rain technique using the umbrellas she had grabbed from the Akatsuki hideout, something he'd apparently done to help keep their cover.

It had taken nearly twenty minutes to gather all the loosed senbon from her first practice with the technique, and she had sworn off trying the technique again until she needed it.

Fū shook her head; she was getting off-track. Something needed to be done about the animosity brewing between her two teammates. "Harō, are you okay?" The minute the words left her mouth, Fū knew that it was a stupid thing to ask.

The cobalt-haired boy shot her a nasty look. "No. I'm very displeased with Shinobu's—" he seemed to speak Naruto's fake name like a curse, "—decision regarding those Ame-nin. We should have killed them." Fū noticed that despite the anger in his voice, Harō's tone was flat and even throughout his reasoning.

"There was no point!" argued Naruto. "I'm not going to let you kill some random ninja just to satisfy some personal grudge!"

"We're in a war!" returned Harō, raising his voice.

"You're in a war!" Naruto was quick to correct, coming to a halt on a thick branch. "And perhaps after this job is done you can get back to striking down some helpless Genin all for the cause of your precious 'Pein-sama'. But right now, your mission is to participate in the Chūnin Exams and help us pass, and that is what you will do," he finished, punctuating each word carefully.

Fū thought she could almost see the steam coming out of Harō's ears. All people had their boiling point: she had learned quickly that Kakuzu's was rather low, but that Naruto had a high tolerance with his temper, barring one or two pressure points. If she was interpreting Harō's body language correctly, the green-haired girl was about to see his.

Harō sprang forward, the Thunder Fangs extended towards Naruto's neck. The blond whirled, bringing up his wakizashi and catching the top curves of each blade, both fists gripping the hilt of his sword. Harō's stormy grey eyes were narrowed in silent fury, and despite his lack of sword skill, he seemed to be pressing the blond back with sheer determination and rage.

"Oh, for the love of— will you two cut it out?" Fū cried, exasperated.

The girl went ignored as the two broke apart, each staring down the other. Harō held the swords up, bringing the tips close together and gathering chakra in between their gap. A blue-white ball of lightning – about the size of a fist – formed at the tips as the Ame-nin glared at Naruto. The blond's wakizashi took on a blue sheen as he channeled his own chakra into it. Fū groaned; even though she didn't know Harō's skill with Lightning Release, Fūton trumped Raiton almost every time. The boys charged—

"Oi, Fū!"

All three members of Kakuzu's team blinked, and, forgetting they were really undercover, turned in surprise to see who had interfered with their spat.

A team of three were headed towards them and closing in rapidly. Fū felt her stomach clench uncomfortably, the fear that she would be recognized having come to pass. Soon enough, standing on a large tree branch less than 100 feet away were a trio of Genin from the Hidden Waterfall, the only team from that village which had managed to pass the written test. Ironically, and to Fū's immense displeasure, the two male members of the team were the bullies from the day she had met Naruto.


Their leader – Hōki, if Fū remembered his name correctly – opened his mouth to say something, but a ball of lightning and a wave of air forced him and his teammates to jump to the forest floor. Fū glanced back to see that both Naruto and Harō had loosed their attacks at this new presence, and were now focused wholeheartedly on the enemies in front of them rather than each other.

Apparently it was not enough to deter Hōki. "Fū, you bitch!" he shouted. "How dare you betray our village!"

The Nanabi Jinchūriki merely rolled her eyes. Yeah, 'cause clearly there was a lot of love for me back in Taki. Did no one wonder why I left…did anyone even search for me?

Hōki continued to rant, "You were Takigakure's ultimate weapon, our chance to become great! You think that you can just leave and get away with it? Well, we're going to show you right here and now what happens when you go against us!"

Fū looked over her shoulder at Naruto, shooting the blond a look that clearly asked, 'Now what?'

Naruto caught the gesture from the corner of his eye, his attention focused more intently on the three Genin going through the same series of hand seals. His blue orbs flickered over to Harō, noticing that the boy hadn't moved but was paying attention to what was going on with a fierce intensity. "They know Fū's identity, which makes them a threat to our mission."

The green-haired girl cracked her knuckles, understanding his subtle message. She grinned. "Cool." Fū prepared to jump down and engage Hōki and his teammates.

"Katon Renkeijutsu: Karura!"

"No," ordered Naruto, quickly forming seals. The fiery dragon was bearing down on Fū's position, and Naruto supposed it would have been a more impressive technique had it been performed by a single, higher-level ninja. As it was… "Suiton: Mizurappa," he finished, expelling a powerful jet of liquid from his mouth. Kisame had taught him the Wild Water Wave technique as his first training exercise, stating that learning it was a requirement for all Hidden Mist ninja. While somewhat weak in theory, the secret of the technique was that its power varied with how much chakra was pushed into it.

To combat the large dragon, Naruto was pouring in a decent amount of chakra.

Steam blanketed the area as the Taki-nin stopped their assault. Naruto stopped his defense, the inhale and exhale of his breathing noticeable for several seconds. He could only assume that their opponents had cut off their attack to conserve chakra. Recovering himself, he glanced at Harō. "Would you like the pleasure?"

Harō smirked. "Gladly." And then he was gone.

The remaining two gazed into the thick mass of vaporized water, trying to see anything. Several of the training sessions Kisame had put Naruto through included the use of Kirigakure no Jutsu – the Art of Hiding in the Mist – and so the blond's sight had improved slightly in the impaired conditions, but with how far away he was (and so Fū could see clearly), he slowly performed the hand signs for the Wind Release: Violent Wind Palm and blasted the steam away.

Now visible, Fū watched the scene below play out with interest. Harō had sheathed his twin katana and was all but dancing around the Taki-nin, engaged in a strange taijutsu battle that he was clearly winning. She cocked her head in curiosity as her teammate ducked under a roundhouse kick and jabbed his thumb into the back of the boy's knee. When the Taki-nin yelped in pain and jumped back awkwardly, Fū raised an eyebrow.

The girl's own taijutsu training had been specifically modeled after Kakuzu's combat style, which focused specifically on waiting for the opponent to move and countering said movements with the least amount of effort and greatest reward possible. Fū had been taken on several bounty hunting missions while under his tutelage for a year and had seen firsthand how effective the man's style was: a caught punch followed by a vicious backhand and then a roundhouse kick powerful enough to shatter ribs. She had adapted relatively well to the style, but parts of it eluded her as Kakuzu tended to use the black threads in his body to complement his fighting prowess.

Naruto…well, she actually had never really seen her fellow Jinchūriki use a specific taijutsu style, mostly because he preferred to use varied ninjutsu (like his teacher). If she had to guess, the blond's physical skills probably resembled that of their teacher's, if less refined and powerful; Kakuzu tended to hit hard, especially when bolstered by his Earth Spear technique.

On the other hand, Harō appeared to be using a style similar to the Hyūga's Jūken…though that should be impossible, considering that the cobalt-haired boy didn't have the Byakugan to see the body's chakra network. "Interesting," commented Naruto, jumping to join Fū on her tree, "he knows kyūsho-jutsu."

Ah, Fū realized. That explains a lot. Kyūsho-jutsu was a rarer branch of taijutsu that focused on striking the opponent's pressure points in order to disable or stall them. It was a difficult style to learn because it required knowledge of the human body, precision, and speed to use effectively, not to mention that it was difficult to pull off debilitating hits which had permanent or lasting effects. The orange-eyed girl wasn't entirely sure where Harō's speed was coming from, but he definitely appeared quite skilled with striking pressure points and evading other attacks.

She glanced at Naruto from her periphery; the blond was standing silently next to her, arms crossed and expression blank. He looked rather uninterested in his surroundings, as if one of his teammates was not, in fact, fighting against the odds for his life. Fū turned back to the battle. She could only hope Harō escaped unscathed.

Harō dodged the majority of a small fire ninjutsu, taking a minor burn to his right leg. Kyūsho-jutsu had its uses in combat, but more so when fighting one-on-one. Back under Pein's command, Harō had either been sent out on long-distance stealth/sniping missions or as part of splinter cells where incapacitating his opponents left room for his teammates to finish them off. However, with no backup forthcoming (he could only assume Naruto and Fū would stay away from the action unless he asked) and a depleting chakra supply, Harō was discovering the drawbacks of relying on it as a taijutsu style when outnumbered and alone.

To dodge his opponents, Harō had been converting chakra to lightning, using the element in an original technique which drastically accelerated his reflexes and how fast he moved. The problem was that by using the move, the cobalt-haired boy had rather quickly used up the majority of his chakra; the only good news was that by sticking to taijutsu, he had conserved the remainder of it by not using any Raiton techniques. Most of the pressure points he had struck were restraint points, those designed to temporarily immobilize an opponent or cause them brief spasms of pain. But with his dwindling reserves, he needed to finish the battle…now.

The three Waterfall ninja had regrouped in a loose triangle, preparing for another collaboration attack. Harō dipped into his reserves and pulled out enough chakra to jet forward, ending up in the center of the trio. In front of him stood the lone kunoichi, and he caught a look of shock on her features before driving up with the heel of his palm, striking the point in the underside of her jaw. She dropped like a sack of bricks.

Instincts suddenly screamed for Harō to duck, and he fell to his side as Hōki's fist transited through the space he had just vacated. Hōki stumbled slightly with his momentum, falling to the ground as Harō swept his legs out from under him. The Ame-nin rolled to his feet, diving forward – and evading a hasty punch from the second Taki-nin – to strike Hōki's teammate in the sternal notch, activating his gag reflex and forcing him to hack air involuntarily; Harō took the opportunity to unsheathe one of his swords and drive it through the boy's heart.

The result was messy. With no formal sword-training, Harō had aimed for the most vital and easily accessible organ in a rather simplistic stab. The hit probably would have been clean except that the Thunder Fangs, unlike most other swords, were not ideal for physical contact – their use lying primarily in Raiton ninjutsu – and the topmost curve was now keeping the katana embedded within the Taki-nin's corpse.

A low growl sounded from behind him. "You'll pay for that!" shouted Hōki, and Harō was forced to abandon the blade as the other boy tackled him from behind. Caught unaware by the move and at the end of his stamina, the cobalt-haired shinobi could do nothing as the older male sat on him and rained blow after blow on his face and body. He squirmed as best as he could to evade the punches, but he quickly realized that he was at a complete disadvantage.

Then two hands grabbed Hōki's head and twisted. There was a crack as his neck was snapped.

"Well, that wasn't nearly as satisfying as I hoped it would be," Fū stated dispassionately, staring at the immobile body of Hōki. "I'll never go back to Taki," she practically spat, uncaring whether or not her tormentor heard her. Harō sighed in relief and took his teammate's proffered hand.

Naruto jumped down from his perch as Fū placed Harō's arm over her shoulders. The blond walked over to the Waterfall kunoichi Harō had downed first, leaning down to reach her wrist and check her pulse. His lips were pursed as he withdrew his wakizashi from its sheath. Centering the blade over her heart, he plunged it through her chest, removing it immediately afterwards. "Find their scroll," he said, moving to the corpse of her teammate.

"Oh, right," Fū acknowledged. She all but dropped Harō to rummage through Hōki's clothes, while Naruto maneuvered the lone Thunder Fang from the other male Taki-nin's body. Wordlessly, he offered the blade to the grounded Harō, who took it without a sound. "Found it!" cheered Fū, "and it's a Heaven Scroll, too, just what we need." She seemed to realize that she was interrupting something for she suddenly fell quiet.

"…You killed her," Harō observed, merely stating fact but failing to cover a tinge of surprise.

"Yes," agreed Naruto. His blue eyes were cold and hard, the eyes of a ninja who knew what needed to be done. There was no pity, sympathy, or remorse as Harō tried to analyze him. "It was necessary."

The Ame-nin peered at his teammate for stretch of time, while Fū's eyes darted between the two. It was as if Naruto was a puzzle that Harō was trying to solve, but he couldn't find which piece went where. Finally though, Harō nodded at Naruto, as if finally accepting the blond for his decision. "Alright. Now, if you'll excuse me…" and he promptly passed out.

Naruto felt his vitals. "Chakra exhaustion," he diagnosed. "I guess we're setting up camp here for the night. Tomorrow we can head out."

Fū smiled. So I guess those two can get along after all.

It was only the second day within the Forest of Death, and Sai honestly had no idea what was going on anymore.

With an odd number of graduates from the Ninja Academy, Danzō – the leader of the supposedly defunct ROOT organization – had pressured the Sandaime into allowing one of his subordinates to fill in the missing spot of the Genin teams. Though the Third Hokage had initially been opposed to the idea, the support of his two former teammates – Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu, two of the more prominent Village Council members – had essentially made his opinion null on the matter.

So Sai had been assigned his current codename, been told his two teammates were Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura, and that they would be under the guidance of Hatake Kakashi. Two of the three names had rung familiar chimes within the boy's head at the time, and the third was of no importance. Danzō had informed him that his mission was to watch over Sasuke and make reports on his skills and progress. He wasn't sure what his leader's interest in the last Uchiha was, but it wasn't his place to question his instructions.

Unfortunately, the parameters of the mission required Sai to interact with people…which meant exposure to emotions, something Sai hadn't experienced in many years. Part of ROOT's program involved the elimination of emotions in order to more effectively carry out the missions necessary to Konoha's survival. So while Sai had a clear goal of what needed to be done, his personality (or lack thereof) often clashed with those of his teammates, which made carrying out his mission slightly difficult at times.

All things considered, he wasn't doing too terribly. Research and spying had revealed the purpose of Kakashi's initial test, which had allowed for Team 7 to become a true Genin team. The D-rank missions were an insult to someone of his skill (after all, ROOT was simply a secret subdivision of the ANBU Black Ops), but Sai bore all of it with a (fake) smile, because he understood the importance of following orders and obeying his superior. The truly difficult part was disguising his skills as those of a common Genin.

Sparring practice and group training were the main issues. D-rank missions didn't require a high level of training (or any training at all, it could be argued), so performing those tasks while not revealing his skills had been easy. But every time Sai was forced to spar against Sasuke, or whenever Kakashi had them perform some random team exercise, the ROOT operative was often forced to tone down years of trained instincts to react as only an average Genin would. It was rather frustrating, to say the least.

But he had passed those obstacles nonetheless. When the announcement that Team 7 would be entered in the Chūnin Exams had been made, Danzō had given Sai new orders. The exams presented the perfect opportunity to fully observe the results of Uchiha's rigorous training against his fellow ninja. Sai had been instructed to assist the boy in getting through the first two stages of the Chūnin Exams; the third stage would apparently be single matches in which Sai could have no influence on Sasuke's performance.

The written test had been easy enough. Sai's specialty lay in drawing and painting creatures which served a multitude of purposes: reconnaissance, message relays, and battle, primarily. Sneaking out his specialized ink brush disguised as a pencil and using it to create animated flies which could spy for him had been simple. The theory was similar to several strains of kikaichū bred by the Aburame clan specifically for reconnaissance purposes, if a tad less precise.

It was the second exam which had so far completely thrown the ROOT operative for a loop. Several hours before, he had been separated from his two teammates by a powerful burst of wind: a Fūton ninjutsu, he surmised. He had come face-to-face with a tremendous snake, but with no one around, he hadn't feared being caught going all-out. Still, Sai was used to dealing with human-sized opponents, and so defeating the snake had taken more cunning and chakra than he'd expected.

Perhaps the biggest surprise had come when the giant serpent had disappeared in a burst of smoke, much in the same way a summons would. The only people Sai knew of who could use snake summons were Mitarashi Anko – a likely possibility, considering the fact that she was proctoring the second exam – and Orochimaru, infamous traitor of the Hidden Leaf. Despite the likelihood of the snake belonging to Anko, the small possibility that it was Orochimaru's spurred Sai into action. Though his ink birds were fast, the dense foliage of the Forest of Death would hinder their flight, and so Sai had taken to tree-jumping back to where he had been separated from his teammates.

He had found them both in the same clearing he had left them. Sakura was leaning against a tree, unconscious but otherwise okay. On the other hand, Sasuke was out cold on the ground, a stab wound on his leg and two puncture marks on the side of his neck (beside which were three comma-shaped markings), plus a fever and some other scrapes and bruises. Sai was no expert with seals – having only the one on his tongue which prevented him from speaking of Danzō – but seeing as how Sasuke had never had such a mark before, the dark-haired boy could only assume it was a recent, and therefore potentially dangerous, addition.

He had summoned two ink lions from the scroll he used for all of his ninjutsu, and the bodies of his teammates were placed upon their backs. Sai had found a hollowed out tree base where he was able to deposit the bodies, then use some extra cloth and water from his canteen to soothe the Uchiha's fever. Being a nursemaid to another ninja was slightly humiliating, but Sasuke was needed alive by Danzō, so Sai had buckled down and did what was necessary. Shortly thereafter, Sakura had regained consciousness and quickly took over caring for the raven-haired boy, much to the artist's relief.

Of course, not long after that, the lone team of ninja from Otogakure had arrived, forcing a weak Sakura and a tired Sai into battle in an attempt to get to Sasuke. Before too much damage was done, Rock Lee had appeared to defend Sakura, taking on the leader of the Sound ninja and ultimately failing. Shortly thereafter, Yamanaka Ino, Nara Shikamaru, and Akimichi Chōji had revealed their presence and attempted to fight the Oto team; Sai would admit they did an okay job, as far as being novices went. After their failure, Lee's teammates Hyūga Neji and Tenten had arrived, searching for the spandex-wearing Genin.

Before they could even interfere, Uchiha Sasuke had awakened, flame-like markings spreading from the (assumed) seal on his neck and covering the left side of his body. He had stood and easily incapacitated one of the Oto-nin, and more likely than not would have killed him if Sakura had not prevented him from doing so.

Sai was inwardly grateful to not have to fight, for it solidified the image of a mediocre ninja with no special skills. Despite that, he was unable to fully comprehend the reasons for the other Konoha Genin to intrude into Team 7's fight. He understood the why: emotions, messy fickle feelings – pride, rage, affection – controlled their actions, but beyond that, there was no explanation for entering a fight which did not concern them. It made Sai glad that he no longer had the capacity to feel emotions; they seemed to cause a lot of unnecessary trouble.

As the leader of the Sound team placed down his scroll and retreated with his two teammates, Sai vaguely registered the Ino-Shika-Chō trio coming out from the bushes and heading over to Lee's immobile form. With everything that had passed in the forest, Sai had a long report to make to Danzō…once he found the time to discreetly do so.

High in the tree upon which he and Tenten had landed, Hyūga Neji shifted his Byakugan eyes slightly, looking to the bushes on the other side of the clearing. Three people became clear to his vision, and he was able to make out the symbols on their forehead protectors. Amegakure, he thought. He wondered if they'd attack, but when one of them signaled the other two to follow the path of the departed Sound team, Neji let them go. If they would rather waste their time with a scroll-less team than take on three separate groups of Leaf Genin, who was he to get in their way?

Konoha-nin are loud, Naruto thought, leading Harō and Fū quietly through the undergrowth.

Their team had spent the previous evening camped out at the site of their battle with the Waterfall team (after removing the corpses from the vicinity, of course). Harō had woken up after a couple of hours to drink some water and eat a small amount of food before returning to sleep. The next morning found the cobalt-haired boy at half-strength, but capable of moving.

So they had, if at a more sedate pace than the first day. But with four days left of the test, and their only goal being to reach the tower in the center, none of the three were worried about time. It was only when Naruto had broken off from their straight path around noon that his two team members had become confused. "I hear something," he had offered quietly by way of explanation.

The scene they had come across had been rather hectic. Leaf Genin had all but crawled out of the metaphorical woodwork, combating the threat the strangely-garbed, opposing ninja team had presented. "Can we go?" Harō had scowled.

"Not yet," Naruto had replied. He turned to the other male. "What do you know about that team?" he continued, motioning towards the trio all the Leaf ninja were fighting.

Both Harō and Fū had glanced from the blond to the other ninja and then back again. Fū shrugged as Harō succinctly stated, "Nothing."

The blond had nodded. "Exactly. If there's one thing Izo-sensei taught me, it's that the more information you have, the better. Right now, I have no information on those guys, and my gut is telling me not to trust 'em." His attention returned to the scene they had been spying on, curses flying from his mouth when he realized they were gone. "C'mon," he motioned, before slipping away.

Which led Naruto, Harō, and Fū to their current scenario of moving along the ground, following the unknown team. "Where did they go…?" muttered Naruto. "Kazu, check the area, will ya?"

"…You're not a very good tracker, are you?" Harō commented dryly.

"Not particularly," admitted the Jinchūriki. "But once I find someone, they're in trouble. …Y'know," he continued after a moment, "you're being oddly cooperative, all things considered."

Harō leveled him with an even stare. "I told you, I'm a strategist. You gave me a compelling reason to follow them, and you proved to me that you know what you're doing with those Taki-nin." He took a deep breath. "You're right. My own desire to kill that Ame team was not in line with this mission, which should be my focus. I've decided that if we're to get through this, I'm better off working with you than against you, which means accepting your decisions. From now on, I'm dedicated to whatever you say our objective is, as long as it makes sense."

Naruto seemed to take this admission in stride, but after a brief moment he nodded. There was silence as Naruto wondered if he should say something, but Fū preempted him with a hesitant, "Uh, guys?"


Naruto kicked Harō into Fū and dove away just before a powerful blast of air swept through the place they had just vacated. The blond wiped his brow with the back of his hand and let out a silent breath of relief. That was a bit too close.

"Come out!" shouted a voice, "We know you're there!" All three exchanged glances before stepping out from the foliage to face their opponents.

Naruto recognized the majority of their outfits from the Akatsuki hideout. Each wore grey pants with black splotches in a camouflage pattern, as well as a long scarf of the same design wrapped around their throats. One of them – Naruto guessed he was the leader, though he couldn't say why – had bandages wrapped around his entire face, save the left eye. The sleeves of his grey shirt (which were slightly darker than the pants) were abnormally long, and a large furry object – a cape was the closest thing Naruto could describe it as – covered his back. His male teammate possessed dark, spiky hair with two face plates starting from under his forehead protector and following his jaw line; one of his arms looked to be either dislocated or broken. He wore a short-sleeved yellow shirt and tight black cloth over his forearms; two black stripes were imprinted on the shirt from his collarbone to under his armpits, and a third went around his waist, separating one of the three kanji for 'death' on his shirt from the other two. His female teammate wore the same forearm bands as well as a sleeveless vest, and a second scarf was wrapped around her waist much like a belt; her long, dark hair fell almost to the ground. Wrapped around each of their foreheads was a hitae-ate, the same, unknown symbol of a musical note engraved in the metal.

"Who are you?" asked the partial-mummy.

"I could ask you the same thing," retorted Naruto. "What village are you from?"

The spiky-haired boy laughed. "You've never heard of Otogakure? You Ame-nin are all pathetic!"

"Zaku, shut up," hissed the first male.

"Oh, come on, Dosu, you can't tell me you think these little babies present a challenge."

"Otogakure?" queried Fū. "Where's that? And why haven't we heard of it?"

"Oto is a new village set up within the Land of Rice Paddies, led by Orochimaru-sama!" bragged Zaku. Naruto and Harō shared a look which clearly said, 'He's a talker'. "This is our first appearance in the Chūnin Exams, and we're here to show just how powerful we are, and to fulfill Orochimaru-sama's desires! We'll have to go back and find a way to kill Uchiha Sasuke," he directed to Dosu.

"Zaku," warned his teammate, "stop talking. And with the curse seal in play, I'm not sure if killing the Uchiha is a good idea, let alone a possibility."

The mention of Orochimaru placed Naruto on edge. He knew nothing of the man personally, only that his reputation preceded him; if the renegade Sannin was influencing the Chūnin Exams in some way, Naruto and his team would have to be extra careful. It did offer an explanation for why Kakuzu had come to Konoha in the first place, though; Orochimaru had a huge price on his head (Naruto was unsure of the exact value) which meant that he was extraordinarily skilled, a fact which accounted for Kakuzu's uncertainty in winning a battle against him.

There was a moment of silence as Naruto turned over the information he had just heard in his head, the team from Hidden Sound subtly preparing to attack. Everyone seemed to realize the time for talk was over, for Naruto and Dosu ordered at the same time, "Kill them."

"Zankūha!" shouted Zaku. The three fake Genin scattered to escape the blast. "Kin, now!"

The female – Kin, apparently – threw a flurry of senbon at Naruto, but the blond easily dodged them. Chiming sounded out from behind him, and Naruto turned to see several of the senbon stuck in a large tree, tiny bells attached to them.

Then the double vision began. Naruto tried to stop the world from spinning, but he guessed that he was trapped in some sort of illusion. "Uhnnn…I think I'm gonna hurl…"

Because Kakuzu never used genjutsu in actual combat, he had merely taught Naruto the basics of dispelling the illusionary techniques. During the course of being taught how to escape genjutsu, Kakuzu had inflicted several types of illusions he had picked up during his early years upon the blond. The lesson Naruto had learned was that he was rather susceptible to that branch of the ninja arts, and that he could really only break a couple of the weaker ones with the traditional genjutsu-release theory. It was a bit of a debilitating weakness in certain scenarios, but fortunately the blond's healing abilities were enough to offset the danger his susceptibility to genjutsu could get him in.

Fū watched as Naruto fell to his knees and clapped his hands over his ears. She moved to try and help him, but another flurry of senbon peppered the area between her and him. The spiky-haired Sound-nin – Zaku, she remembered – was keeping Harō preoccupied; the fight was surprisingly even, Zaku's loss of an arm counteracted by Harō's incomplete recovery from the previous day. Kin was preventing her from interfering with Naruto, allowing Dosu to zip forward and slam a strange device attached to his arm into Naruto's stomach with a brutal uppercut.

Naruto coughed up a mixture of blood and bile, the red fluid also trickling out of his ears and soaking his head covering. Disoriented, with his vision swimming violently, Naruto could only grudgingly accept that the Sound-nin had a fair amount of talent…comparatively speaking, anyway. He vaguely registered the echoing of Dosu's voice, the mummified boy explaining how the device on his arm – the Melody Arm – altered sound waves to confuse and injure the foe. Their village was aptly named then, if all of their abilities revolved around the manipulation of sound and sound waves to gain the upper hand over their opponents.

The blue-eyed boy squinted in an attempt to settle his vision. There was a slight glint of sunlight on metal, and Naruto could finally focus enough to realize that the bells Kin had thrown were attached to the senbon by ninja wire. Despite his dizziness, he unsheathed his wakizashi and swung haphazardly, applying Fūton chakra to cleave the wires in two. The simple movement caused waves of nausea to roll over him, but he felt a sense of accomplishment in spite of his vertigo.

"You can still move, huh?" came Dosu's voice from above him. "I'll take care of that!" He swung down with the Melody Arm, this time targeting Naruto's head.

"Naruto!" cried Fū, forgetting to use his alias in her panic. She took two senbon to the thigh and one to the shoulder for the distraction.

Enough's enough, floated through Naruto's head. The blond wasn't entirely sure how well he could control his faculties, between the damage from the Melody Arm and the dissipating effects of Kin's illusions, but pain suddenly flooded his body as Jiongu forcibly took over. Black threads shot out from the stitches in his left forearm, wrapping around Dosu's attacking arm. The tendrils wriggled into the holes of the Melody Arm, working to negate the threat which caused their user harm. Dosu tried to use his chakra to amplify the damage his weapon did, but the threads were unresponsive to the assault. Naruto's other forearm lashed out – attached to his body only by the cable-like threads – and grabbed the Sound ninja around the neck.

As more of Jiongu's tendrils slithered out from Naruto's arms to restrain Dosu, the blond spared a careful look at his teammates. Harō was stuck on the defensive, unable to find the time to either move close to strike pressure points or back away to use his patented lightning techniques with Zaku shooting continuous blasts of air at him. He turned his head the other way, vision swimming with the movement, to see Fū countering salvos of senbon from Kin with her own needles.

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki lurched to his feet, stumbling in the process as his equilibrium was thrown even more off balance. "I'd love to stay longer," he informed Dosu, fighting down nausea in the process, "but I'm pretty sure I don't want to be hit by your little toy again." The mummified boy's visible eye widened marginally. Naruto fought to regain control of Jiongu, the struggle reminding him of his initial training with the kinjutsu. Finally, recovering some measure of his equilibrium, he exerted enough willpower to extend his free left hand with the threads to grab his fallen sword, making sure to keep the tendrils from his forearm wrapped around the Melody Arm. Focusing intently upon Dosu's neck to control his strike, he took a second to steady himself before slicing the blade across his opponent's carotid artery.

Nausea reclaimed him, and Naruto wondered absentmindedly how much damage Dosu had inflicted to him with the one strike to still be feeling the effects. There was a slight slurping noise as Jiongu returned to his body, allowing Dosu's corpse to drop to the floor and his lower arms to reconnect with his elbows. Pushed to the back of his mind were the clamoring thoughts regarding the almost sentient nature of Jiongu's tendrils; all he could think of was helping his teammates.

Naruto knew that he had no chance of using a pinpointed attack, so a broad one would have to do. He closed his eyes to better concentrate, discovering that without the double vision he could more easily focus on his goal. Damn fox, he snarled, why can't you help me now?


Naruto was startled at the actual response, but he ignored it to the best of his abilities. His hands moved through the seals for the Great Breakthrough technique, opening his eyes long enough to send the large wall of wind towards Zaku. The spiky-haired boy turned around, shouting, "Zankūkyokuha!" The powerful blast of air countered Naruto's attack, completely dissipating the Great Breakthrough and allowing the residual of the attack to sweep over him.

Several cuts appeared on his clothes and exposed skin, and Naruto idly wondered how disoriented he was to have one of his base attacks at a low enough level to be countered so easily. He slumped to the ground, using the trunk of the tree behind him as a backrest. Meanwhile, Zaku was crowing in delight. "How pathetic! I don't even know how you fools got this far with such mediocre skills! This is the perfect warm-up for taking out"


The earth broke and collapsed as a triangular bolt of lightning rampaged through it. Zaku released a short scream as he was engulfed in the blast, the powerful attack frying him almost instantly. Naruto closed one eye, spying Harō not far Zaku's position, his hands to the ground. The Rain ninja was breathing heavily, and Naruto was about to comment on a job well done before Harō fell on his back, unmoving.

"Chiri Sōhō no Jutsu!"

Leaving the thought of Harō to later, Naruto smirked to himself, closing his other eye to nurse his double vision; it sounded as if Fū was getting ready to finish her battle. Despite the prevalence of dust in the atmosphere, Fū often complained that it was too much effort to collect enough for a legitimate attack quickly. As such, she had created the Dust Touch Technique to turn non-living, solid materials to dust and increase the quantity of her specialization. She had explained all this to him on the way to the Akatsuki hideout, so he knew that next would come a powerful Dust Release move, like

"Jinton: Jingadan!"

Naruto cocked his head in mild confusion; it wasn't quite what he was expecting, but it worked, he supposed. He had discovered that, because of Hidden Waterfall's focus on Suiton techniques and hatred of the Nanabi, Fū had been left in the dust (he chuckled quietly at the unintentional pun) in studying Earth and Wind Releases to combine into Jinton. As a result, she had practiced and created many of those specialized attacks – such as the performed Dust Release: Dust Fang Bullet – based on many water attacks, the Suigadan in this case. When he had called her a copycat and a cheat, she had merely retorted that dust was far more common and easier to create than water was, and he had promptly shut up.

It was both humiliating and humbling to recognize that she was right.

Footsteps brought him back to his senses, and Naruto opened one eye to see Fū standing above him, hands on her hips. He saw her orange eyes shift over to Harō's prone form before she sighed. "Boys," she huffed with a roll of her eyes. Naruto tried to smile at her but it came out as more of a grimace. Fū ignored the gesture and walked over to Harō, picking him up and carrying him over to where Naruto was leaning against the tree.

"Chakra exhaustion…again," she stressed, laying him on the ground. "Honestly, what the hell were you two doing? And why did you let him fight when he wasn't fully recovered?"

"He's a…urrggh…a bit difficult to stop when you have…uhnn…no balance," Naruto groaned.

Fū rolled her eyes for a second time. "Honestly, what am I supposed to do with you two?" she asked rhetorically. "Looks like we're here for another night. We'll have to get to the tower tomorrow."

Naruto nodded, but stopped, the motion making him sick again. He thought he could hear the Kyūbi laughing at him from his mindscape. Bastard, he thought. Then sleep claimed him.

When Naruto woke in the late morning the next day, the first thing he noticed was that the world no longer spun. He sat up, fighting a brief sense of vertigo, then swiveled his head to see if his balance had been restored. When his self-diagnosis was finished, he stood and stretched. Everything seemed fine.

"Oh, you're awake," remarked Fū. She strolled over and gave him a small amount of the rations she had scavenged from the forest, as well as a canteen. He drank greedily as she continued, "Harō woke about 15 minutes ago. We're ready to leave when you are."

The blond shot her a quick thumbs-up, and she nodded in response.

They vacated the clearing five minutes later. Harō looked a bit paler than normal, and Naruto guessed that he had recovered maybe 30 percent of his total chakra. Fū kept shooting the cobalt-haired boy worried glances, as if expecting him to collapse at any moment. Fortunately, tree-jumping didn't require a large exertion of energy, and after several hours of travel, they reached the tower in the center of the forest.

All three stared at the building, the same thought drifting through their minds. Thank Kami.

After living for close to a century, Kakuzu had acquired a fondness for reading old books. Information was power, and it was impressive what one could learn from texts with enough time and dedication. As such, he'd taken to checking out books from the Konoha Library and poring over them, taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him while stuck within a village he hated.

Unfortunately, the process was frustrating. Originally, he had hoped that information on Orochimaru would be available, but because he was a foreigner, there were too many restrictions on what he could and could not look at; even a Hidden Leaf citizen probably wouldn't be able to find much on one of his village's major traitors in a public area.

It was an annoying obstacle to come across because the man's talents were a mystery. The root of the issue actually lay in the fact that a large amount of the higher level ninja – mostly S-class, but some A-class – did not have their full abilities listed within any edition of the Bingo Book, either Hidden Village or bounty hunter versions. This was because, while several S-class ninja were generally renowned far and wide, few other ninja either knew their skills or lived through encounters to report on them. Kakuzu's book, which was much more expansive than the normal one, was surprisingly lacking in this area as well, if Zetsu's, Konan's, and Orochimaru's absent profiles were any indication (thought at least the Snake Sannin had an entry, albeit an uninformative one).

Kakuzu appreciated the secrecy in his own case, but it became a rather frustrating occurrence when he needed the information for his own uses – especially when he was going up against someone of Orochimaru's caliber.

Finding an apparent dead-end there, the mercenary had moved on to a different research topic: the Uzumaki clan.

The bad thing about living a long time was that, while he could retain a lot of information, some of the older tidbits got lost to time. He could vaguely remember hearing about the existence of an Uzumaki clan, but so far as he knew, its members had never held prominence in any of the main villages, and whispers of them had disappeared decades ago, meaning that he'd stopped giving them attention. It was like trying to recall the days when Taki had wanted to claim glory and sought ways to eliminate people the likes of Kinkaku and Ginkaku of the Hidden Cloud; he could remember their names, but nothing pertinent about them.

His student's lack of information about his own family was intriguing, though it was hard to say exactly why he was putting in such legwork for the blond. Originally, the boy had been a way for him to get more money, and he'd raised him the same way he'd trained himself back in the founding days of the Hidden Villages. At some point – and he could probably trace it to Naruto's similarities to himself, the same reason he'd bestowed the Earth Grudge Fear kinjutsu upon him – Kakuzu had changed his mind about what his pupil would be to him. He would be more than just a source of income…he'd become a message the nukenin wanted to deliver to the world.

Naruto still had a long ways to go, however. He was inexperienced in actual combat – which was probably as much Kakuzu's fault as it was the blond's, not that he would ever admit it – and his training was spread thin in several different directions, leaving him woefully non-specialized; it would be a boon later on, when he would have a broad range of skills to call upon and the expertise to back them, but at this stage, it could just be considered confusing. He was also, sadly, arrogant about his abilities (a trait he'd probably picked up from his teacher), and as Kakuzu frequently pointed out, the blond's arrogance had yet to be earned.

One day, the younger thread-user would become a top-notch shinobi, but until that point, Kakuzu fully expected him to misstep, learn from his mistakes, and stumble along the path…and the mercenary would be there to ridicule his student every step of the way, pushing him to become better.

A knock sounded at the main door of his room, drawing him from his musings, and he called out, "Yes?"

The voice that returned to him was pure business – ANBU, he guessed. "Your team just checked in. They have passed the second stage of the Chūnin Exams. I am here to escort you to the tower in preparation for the third stage."

"…Very well," Kakuzu acknowledged. He placed down the scroll he had been reviewing and went to open the door. "Lead the way."

NarutoOrochimaru…just what are you both capable of? Time marches onI suppose I will find out soon enough.

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