The Cost of Living


"You look like hell."

Naruto shot Kakuzu a filthy look. "You try spending three days in a forest surrounded by enemies and engaged in near-constant battles to the death, then come talk to me."

The fake Jōnin leveled an even stare at his student. "I call that a Tuesday. Your excuses are unfounded. Perhaps your skill level is not as high as you believe it to be; many of the missions I have embarked upon were undoubtedly more dangerous than whatever challenges you faced in that forest." Naruto seethed quietly as Kakuzu turned his attention to Fū. "On the other hand, you appear relatively undamaged," he noted.

Fū smiled at Kakuzu. "I try," she chirped.

Though he hated to admit it, Naruto knew that his teacher had a point. Fū had emerged from the Forest of Death almost completely unscathed: a couple of tiny pinpricks from where Kin's senbon had struck true and a jagged tear in her scarf from where she had ripped it to use as a bandage for Harō, but otherwise she was completely clean.

The blond quickly analyzed himself. He knew that his head covering was crusted with dried blood from his previously ruptured eardrums (courtesy of Dosu), and a mixture of blood and bile had splattered onto his shirt and scarf. Dirt and grime covered a fair amount of his clothes, arm bandages, and skin, and the cuts from Zaku's Decapitating Airwaves attack remained on his body, the Kyūbi refusing to heal them on principle.

By far, the worst off was Harō. Bruises littered his face from the beating Hōki had given him, and there were multiple slashes in his clothing from his battle with Zaku. The small burn on his leg from his battle with the Hidden Waterfall team – which Fū had attempted to treat with native plants and her scarf as a wrapping – had turned pink and blistered slightly. Like Naruto, he was covered in dust and other signs of tramping through the wilderness, and exhaustion exuded from his body in waves.

Naruto wondered briefly why Fū didn't have the same dirt smears symbolizing days in the wilderness that he and Harō were covered in, but realized quickly that she must have taken the time to remove them by using her control over Doton and Jinton…talent her two teammates lacked. Damn her.

The trio had arrived at the tower 40 minutes prior, and Kakuzu had only just appeared, led by one of Konoha's ANBU. His presence, though normally intimidating and slightly foreboding, actually relieved Naruto somewhat; it meant that, despite all of the obstacles in the Forest of Death, Kakuzu was still incognito and thus the mission (whatever it was) was still underway.

He really wanted to talk with the older ninja about what the hell was going on, though.

"Yeah, yeah, we get it, Kazu's the favorite," Naruto jibed bitterly. "Can we talk?"

Before Kakuzu could respond, Mitarashi Anko walked over to the quartet. "We've prepared a room for you guys to stay in while we wait for the other participants to arrive," she informed them. "It's down that hall, third door on the left. We'll let you know when the second exam is officially over." Kakuzu nodded in understanding and the purple-haired proctor walked away.

"Grab Harō," Kakuzu ordered Fū, "he looks ready to collapse. I believe you are more capable of handling tasks than Shinobu is at this point."

Suddenly, the need to speak to the older shinobi about their mission was less important than satisfying the desire to show Kakuzu what he could do when properly incensed. "You damn—!" he snarled, bunching his fists as if in preparation to attack his teacher, but Fū's restricting hand on his shoulder silently told him to let it go. He growled angrily but acquiesced, following the bounty hunter down the hallway as Fū slung Harō's arm over her shoulders and half-carried, half-dragged him to their assigned room.

Midnight found Naruto lying wide awake, his thoughts tumultuous.

For all that the blond felt he owed Kakuzu – taking him in and raising him (even if the man had tried to kill him first), teaching him (albeit haphazardly) – there were times when the old ninja could be simply infuriating. Kakuzu was in the habit of keeping his personal agenda to himself, only letting Naruto know the details of his missions if he found it pertinent. Normally, Naruto would shrug and write it off as a quirk of a ninja who had lived alone for far too long. But on the rare occasions when the blond was involved in some plot of the former Taki-nin's, the Jinchūriki would admit that knowing what the hell was going on was a nice perk.

Naruto felt that his relationship with his teacher was more complicated than it needed to be. Truthfully, there were times when he wasn't even sure if the nukenin liked him at all. Kakuzu's antagonistic and sadistic nature was so counterintuitive to every stereotype Naruto had imagined as applying to 'caring' and 'family' that it was hard to make the two ideas compatible with the only man to acknowledge his existence. The addition of Fū to their semi-dysfunctional group – while not a mistake – had certainly opened up more realms for Kakuzu to aggravate his blond pupil, often done by comparing the prowess of the two Jinchūriki (though since Naruto and Fū had only had three months together with the former Waterfall shinobi before they'd split up, opportunity had so far been somewhat limited).

Case in point: upon arriving in their room, Kakuzu few words went to praising Fū on her skills during the second portion of the Chūnin Exams. Granted, 'praise' was a loose term – he had focused more on verbally abusing Naruto with regard to his lack of talent and unkempt state while saying nothing of the sort about the green-haired girl – but the lack of attention to Fū's faults made Naruto angry and frustrated with both her and Kakuzu. It wasn't the former's fault, of course – Naruto could hardly blame his fellow Jinchūriki for exiting the Forest of Death in better condition than he had – but the bite of feeling replaced – and subsequently ignored and ridiculed – stung. Given time and privacy, he would've liked to talk to Kakuzu about the man's treatment of him.

If that was the only problem, Naruto might have postponed the conversation he wished to have with Kakuzu. The real issue was that the blond actually needed to talk to his teacher about something else very important (though he snorted at the idea that Kakuzu would ever consider hurt feelings 'important'). There were suspicions crawling through his mind about their purpose in the Chūnin Exams, and very few of said assumptions sat well with him. But every time he had tried conversing with Kakuzu, the bounty hunter had merely shrugged him off or ignored him.

Resulting in his current sleeplessness.

Naruto swung his legs over the side of his bed, noting that both Harō and Fū were sound asleep. He crept to the door separating their room from Kakuzu's, opening it and slipping quietly inside.

His stealth proved to be unnecessary when he saw Kakuzu sitting on his bed, studying a scroll. He waited for his teacher to say something, but after a minute passed during which Kakuzu only blinked and continued to read, Naruto grew annoyed. "I've been trying to talk to you all day," he accused suddenly, frustration evident in his voice as he took a heavy step forward.

"I had not noticed," intoned Kakuzu, unraveling a bit more of the parchment. His lack of attention to Naruto caused the blond to grow steadily angrier.

Fueled by his growing aggravation, Naruto lunged forward and grabbed the scroll out of Kakuzu's hands. "We will talk," he growled.

Kakuzu stood up, and Naruto remembered in that instant why getting on the man's bad side was a terrible idea. The nukenin's very being exuded a mixture of power and evil, of respect demanded and expected. Naruto gulped. "You presume to order me around, brat?" asked Kakuzu, his voice deathly quiet. "Me, who saved you from a wretched fate, trained you, and molded you to be a proper shinobi?"

Naruto hesitated in answering. Despite everything he and Kakuzu had been through – or perhaps, because of everything they had been through – the blond often forgot how absolutely terrifying his teacher could be. There was an overwhelming pressure in the atmosphere, and he felt as if Kakuzu's immense chakra was suffocating him. "N-no," he choked out.

And then the tension was gone. Naruto breathed, surprised at how easy the action came to him. Kakuzu held out his hand, silently demanding the scroll; his pupil handed it over wordlessly. There was a moment as Kakuzu returned to studying the paper in which Naruto wondered if he was better off leaving the room. Following this thought, he turned around and made for the door, but a crisp, "Halt," made him pause. "You wished to say something?" the mercenary continued as if the previous moment had not occurred.

Dozens of thoughts ran through Naruto's head, each one as pertinent as the last. "Why are we here?" he finally settled on asking, returning to his original reason for approaching the older shinobi and turning to face him once more.

Beneath the Rain ninja disguise, Kakuzu raised a single eyebrow. "I have already told you not to look a gift horse in the mouth, brat," came his smooth response.

"You're after Orochimaru, right?" he hazarded, ignoring the excuse. Though there was no visible reaction, Naruto knew that he had the man's attention. Kakuzu had told the three Genin upon their arrival in the room that Konoha wasn't watching them as closely as he would have guessed, and so Naruto felt comfortable openly discussing his ideas. "I'm not stupid, Kakuzu. I know you, and I know that this whole thing is just a charade. What'd that woman from Akatsuki want?"

There was a long moment of silence during which Kakuzu's strange green eyes bore holes through his student. Naruto tried not to fidget under the intensity of his scrutiny. "No, I suppose you are not stupid," he stated finally. "Aggravating, perhaps, but I have seen to your intelligence quotient. What draws you to the conclusion that I am here for Orochimaru?"

"We had a run-in with some of his Genin in the Forest of Death," Naruto explained. He pointed to the blood crusted into the cloth around his ears. "They did this. I'm not sure what the exact attack was, but apparently all of them had abilities related to manipulating sound. I'm pretty sure I got caught by some sort of auditory genjutsu."

"Perhaps," the bounty hunter mused, "but hearing is an interesting sense to manipulate. If they truly did have some mastery over sound, then it would not be a far stretch to assume they would be able to attack your inner ear with specific pitches and frequencies of sound waves. Such an assault would make you experience a loss in equilibrium and thus could have results similar to experiencing an auditory genjutsu. Still, I am disappointed that you were caught so unaware. Have you learned nothing?"

Naruto had the fair grace to look slightly ashamed. "I was caught off-guard. It won't happen again—"

"See that it does not."

"—but how do you even know all of that?"

"…I have been alive for a very long time. Sometimes there is little to do on the road but learn. Physiology is an important topic for shinobi to understand." Kakuzu stared at the blond before turning his attention back to the scroll. "As long as you have learned something from this experience, I consider the results satisfactory."

There was a beat of silence while Naruto waited for Kakuzu to say something else. When he didn't, the Jinchūriki prompted, "Orochimaru?"

Even though his teacher's eyes were focused downward, Naruto was sure the man rolled them in aggravated exasperation. "Why are you taking such an interest in my affairs, brat?"

"I'm just trying to understand," shrugged the blond. Kakuzu leveled him with an even stare, but made a sound Naruto translated to a heavy sigh.

"I have been…asked…to eliminate Orochimaru."

Naruto arched an eyebrow. "Akatsuki wants you to kill Orochimaru? If they're so interested in the money, why don't they do it?"

"Akatsuki has no interest in his bounty, simply his death. Apparently he was once a member, and intelligence suggests that he is slated to make an appearance during the Chūnin Exams. Your run-in with his subordinates would seem to lend credence to such rumors."

"You get to keep the money?" Kakuzu nodded, and Naruto whistled. "That's gotta be a pretty sum. Wait…" He paused, a frown marring his lips as he went over what he knew about Akatsuki. "Kisame said that Akatsuki's primary goal is collecting money. If they're passing up such a huge sum by letting you keep it, there's gotta be another agenda here." Kakuzu remained oppressively silent as Naruto reached his conclusion. "You know what their real plan is…don't you?" he asked quietly.

Kakuzu stared at his first student intently, ruminating on what his next course of action should be. This was the fork in the road that determined whether he supported the path he wanted his pupil to walk, or try and ally himself with Akatsuki and work towards the lure of world domination and limitless cash. Even disregarding the fact that he wanted to use Naruto to make a statement to the world, there was a lot of value in having the two Jinchūriki working under his command, including his original plan of profit sharing any of their future bounties.

As far as resources went, his two students were far from being disposable. But now he was being forced to weigh the consequences of keeping them – Akatsuki coming after him a highly likely scenario – against the option of turning them over to the criminal organization and reaping the profit for the deed. Three years ago, it probably wouldn't have even been a question which he'd choose, but after investing Jiongu in the boy, the decision wasn't nearly as clear-cut as he thought it should be.

Screw it, he thought, and the words were so Naruto that Kakuzu almost laughed. "Akatsuki has its sights set on capturing the Bijū in order to achieve world domination," he stated.

Naruto was so shocked at this revelation, let alone the fact that Kakuzu had just told him, that he took a step back. "W-what?"

"The woman who approached me is named Konan," he began, choosing to repeat the information he had divulged minutes before. "She told me that Orochimaru was once a member of Akatsuki and that they had evidence he had plans to invade Konoha during the Chūnin Exams. I was informed that they wanted me to kill him, and if I refused, they would take Fū."

Naruto pondered this information, a slow smirk spreading across his lips. "You got blackmailed by Akatsuki to come here and you accepted their offer in order to save Fū's life. Kakuzu, you really do care!" As if to emphasize how touching the moment was, Naruto placed a hand to his heart in mock appreciation.

"Do not think I did it for either her sake or yours!" Kakuzu denied venomously. "Konan offered me the money Orochimaru's head is worth, and that was not an opportunity I was willing to pass up. Your safety is no concern of mine."

The blond Jiongu-wielder peered intently at the former Taki-nin. Despite all their years together, Naruto still found it extraordinarily difficult to read Kakuzu when the older ninja didn't want him to. "Okay, Kakuzu, if you say so." Then he paused. "Wait…" he realized, "Konan didn't say anything about me…does that mean they don't know about…?"

"That I do not know," admitted the bounty hunter, "but we should assume that they know of your condition in spite of the lack of evidence."

Naruto nodded his understanding, but then remembered something else he wanted to ask Kakuzu about. "In the forest," he began slowly, carefully choosing what he wanted to say, "there was a moment when Jiongu kind of…took over."

Kakuzu stared at him. Naruto felt that he could almost see his teacher's thought process in mentally debating what to tell him. "Kinjutsu are classed as such because there is some property of the technique that is either dangerous to the user or too powerful for widespread use among a population; sometimes both," he chose to say. "Your experience with Jiongu is limited, but the threads have a level of sentience that is necessary for many of the higher functions the technique is capable of. There is an instinctual understanding of self-preservation that connects the threads to your body. I presume that you were in some form of danger?" At Naruto's nod, the bounty hunter continued, "Then Jiongu was doing its job by acting in a defensive manner and protecting its host from a potential threat. Do not worry yourself with such trivialities."

Sensing a dismissal and pondering this new revelation, Naruto began walking to the door but stopped to say rather defensively, "Fū had the easy opponent."

"Jealously does not become you, Naruto," Kakuzu tossed out as Naruto continued his trek back to his bed. The blond allowed time to process the comment as Kakuzu continued, "There is a reason why you are the only other individual to become imbued with Jiongu. You should not allow the words or actions of others to compromise your self-image."

With that, the Kyūbi's jailor went to bed feeling an unfamiliar mix of satisfaction and relief.

The remaining several days passed without incident as Kakuzu pored over scrolls gathering information and Harō recovered from his injuries suffered within the Forest of Death. Finally, a Konoha Chūnin came and informed them that the second exam was over and that they should follow him to where the Hokage was slated to make an announcement.

They arrived in a large arena with viewing balconies placed high along the two longer walls and a large statue of two hands in the Ram seal at the front wall. Naruto took his place next to the other Genin teams, Fū and Harō standing linearly behind him. As Kakuzu moved to stand beside the other Jōnin teachers, Naruto took notice of his team's competition: almost all Leaf-nin, he noticed in disgust, including the Uchiha, Nara, both Hyūga, and all their team members, as well as a team led by a silver-haired adolescent, and a lone group from the Hidden Sand consisting of Gaara and his teammates.

Naruto's mind wandered as the Third Hokage began to talk. He was still attempting to wrap his mind around all the information Kakuzu had given him the other night. If Akatsuki truly was after the Bijū, then he and Fū were in grave danger. Both Jinchūriki had a fair amount of skill in their respective areas – at least Chūnin-level, if not higher, he guessed – and still had room to grow, but compared to the threat Akatsuki posed, they might as well be flies. Naruto didn't have an accurate gauge of each member's power level, but since he hadn't yet beaten Kakuzu (an honorary member of sorts, it seemed) or Kisame (a full-fledged member) in battle, it was unlikely that he or his fellow demon container stood much of a chance against any one of them anyway, let alone a group.

Perhaps the most curious piece of information Naruto kept coming back to was something Kakuzu had not directly told him – the fact that the bounty hunter did not have a designated alliance to the shadowy organization. The blond had long entertained the notion that the ex-Waterfall ninja was a self-serving, opportunistic man (or a selfish bastard), and by revealing Akatsuki's real plans to him when he could have easily kept quiet (which would have made more sense if he was completely allied with the group), Kakuzu had proven that he would do whatever was in his best interest. Whether turning in the two Jinchūriki was more lucrative than keeping them alive was an entirely different story that Naruto didn't have enough information to accurately predict the ending to.

Still, it boded well that Kakuzu had confided such sensitive information unto his blond pupil. Such an act indicated that the old nukenin actually cared about the two youths, even if he would never admit it, or else showed it in the worst way possible. But barring that, Naruto now had time to plan. For what he could only guess, but he knew that he would have to get much stronger, much faster, if he ever had hope of surviving Akatsuki and getting vengeance against Konoha.

The undercover Rain Genin was brought from his reverie by a nudge from Fū. He shot her a questioning look, to which she responded by tugging him up one set of stairs to the balcony. "One on one preliminary matches," she whispered as they walked. She nodded to the giant statue, and Naruto noticed a large screen had appeared behind it, displaying the names Uchiha Sasuke and Akadō Yoroi. "They're randomizing the names," she added, "and those two are the first match-up."

The pair took up a position far away from the other competitors, Harō and Kakuzu following their lead. Naruto noticed that most of the Leaf ninja were grouped close together, while the team from the Hidden Sand stood far away from the rest, nearest the stairs. He turned his attention to the arena, where the last of the loyal Uchiha was taking up an unusual stance against a purple-clothed man. There were no significant distinguishing traits about him, though his outfit signified his allegiance to the unknown silver-haired Genin…who had disappeared at some point, Naruto noted belatedly. …I should really pay more attention.

With that thought in mind, Naruto focused on the combatants as the first match started. If he had any hope of advancing through the Chūnin Exams and fulfilling his oath of revenge, the best idea would be to observe the competition.

Though he didn't know the reason, Naruto noticed rather quickly that the Uchiha down below was fighting – rather ineffectively – with only taijutsu as the other Genin stole his chakra. As a clan, the Uchiha had been renowned for their prowess and variability with (fire) ninjutsu, a side effect of possessing the Sharingan. The fact that Sasuke was not using either his kekkei genkai or any ninjutsu was a bit strange.

As Yoroi dove forward with a proclamation of victory, Sasuke appeared under him and kicked him skyward. Maybe he's trying to prove a point, Naruto mused as the Uchiha followed his opponent into the air.

"Shishi Rendan!" shouted Sasuke, propelling the older Genin into the ground with a hard kick.

The proctor – a short, sickly-looking man wearing a bandana, who had introduced himself as Gekkō Hayate – knelt over Yoroi to check his condition before pronouncing the adolescent unconscious. When Sasuke was declared the winner, Kakashi appeared behind his student and took him away. Kakuzu hemmed thoughtfully. "It appears as if the Uchiha clan still retains a fearsome reputation despite a lack of quantity," mulled the old ninja. "He will make a fine bounty someday."

Kakuzu recognized that he wasn't playing to his strengths, too, Naruto thought. It wasn't altogether surprising considering how analytical Kakuzu was, but it was still nice to have the confirmation of his own thoughts reflected by his mentor.


Naruto snapped back to attention, focusing upon the two figures currently…standing completely motionless. Judging by the high collar of one and the black bodysuit of the other, the match-up was the Aburame versus Gaara's male teammate. Placed next to the Suna-nin was a bulky, bandaged…thing. The proctor coughed into the silence, the sound unnaturally loud in the stillness of the auditorium. Naruto shifted from one foot to the other; Fū twitched uncomfortably; someone shouted something about youth.

The Sand ninja collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

"Kankurō!" gasped the female Suna-nin.

The bandaged lump began to writhe uncontrollably before it unwrapped to reveal a howling Kankurō. He slapped at his clothes as Fū turned to Kakuzu in explanation. "Um…what just happened?"

Kakuzu gestured towards the arena. "It appears as if the Aburame will explain."

Indeed, the bug-nin had already launched into a brief monologue. "My kikaichū latched onto your body and tried to siphon out your chakra. Imagine their surprise when the body they attacked had no chakra circulatory system, but instead a series of chakra strings trailing to your actual body." The Aburame adjusted his dark glasses. "It was unfortunate that you were matched against me. Such a tactic would have perhaps worked against an opponent who did not have the capability to track and neutralize chakra." He glanced towards the proctor. "It would be prudent of you to call the match. My opponent will very shortly have no chakra left unless my insects are commanded to leave him alone."

The proctor called the match in favor of Aburame Shino. There was silence as names flickered across the board, Naruto staring intently down into the arena in preparation for the next match. Suddenly, Fū chirped, "My turn!" and moved towards the stairs.

Naruto hooked a hand around her elbow before she moved out of his range. "Don't do anything fancy," he warned her. "Remember that we're still trying to stay under the radar." The Nanabi Jinchūriki nodded, prompting the blond to release his hold on her. She continued to the stairs, making a point to ignore the teal eyes of Gaara boring into her head as she passed.

Entering the combat area, Fū took her place across from a rotund boy – Akimichi Chōji, if the screen announcing matches was any indication – and waited for the proctor to signal the beginning of the match. The sickly man did so, and Chōji immediately shot her an apologetic glance. "I don't like fighting, but Asuma-sensei said he'll buy me barbeque if I win." He formed two hand signs and shouted, "Baika no Jutsu!"

Fū fought the urge to laugh. Where once stood a slightly chubby boy, now was, for lack of a better description, a large ball. "Interesting attack," she managed with a slight giggle.

"I'm not done yet! Nikudan Sensha!" Jets of chakra shot out from Chōji's clothing as he tucked his arms, legs, and head into his body and began to spin. The spinning turned into a powerful roll which immediately moved in Fū's direction.

"Okay, slightly more impressive," she amended, jumping aside as the Genin passed by. He was forced to turn in a wide, slow arc to target her again. Slow moving, relatively linear attack…this shouldn't be too hard. Fū waited until Chōji was only two dozen feet away before forming quick seals. Tiger, Hare, Boar, Dog… "Doton: Doryūheki!" The green-haired girl slapped her hands to the ground, and a four-foot thick wall of stone rose from the floor.

Chōji struck the defensive technique and immediately fell out of his Human Bullet Tank, looking dazed. The Earth-Style Wall cracked and fell on top of him, several large rocks striking his head and knocking him unconscious. Hayate came over and analyzed Chōji's condition before announcing the kunoichi as the winner.

Naruto cocked his head to the side in mild curiosity. That victory seemed a bit too easy. Granted, Fū should've been stronger than a vast majority of the Genin present – he should have been stronger than a vast majority of the Genin present, too, not that that had prevented him from being beaten in the Forest of Death – but after watching the impressive physical and analytical displays of both the Uchiha and the Aburame boys (respectively), the Akimichi's exhibition was rather…disappointing.

Unbeknownst to Naruto, Fū's round set a precedent for a series of unflattering matches for the Konoha Genin.

The next battle ended up being a veritable catfight between the platinum blonde Yamanaka Ino and the pink-haired girl on the Uchiha's team – Haruno Sakura, according to the screen. There was a long exchange of kicks and punches – during which Naruto almost screamed at how asinine the battle was – where nothing resulted but stamina depletion on both sides. Naruto would admit to being marginally impressed with the Yamanaka's ingenuity of using her own hair as a chakra conduit to trap Sakura and activate her clan's Mind Body Switch Technique and take victory from there.

After the two girls made it back up to the balcony, Temari (the blonde, female Suna-nin) and Tsurugi Misumi (the teammate of the Uchiha's opponent) were called down to the battlefield. The match piqued Naruto's interest primarily because of the fan Temari wielded, a potential sign of her aptitude with wind ninjutsu; having the same elemental affinity, he was curious to see what abilities she possessed. When the proctor announced the beginning of the fight, Misumi immediately moved towards Temari with an almost flowing motion. She kept him at a distance with bursts of chakra-enhanced winds until he got around them with an impossible-looking twisting motion. The Leaf-nin slithered towards the kunoichi, who folded up her fan and swung when Misumi came into range.

There was a resounding crack as the fan's protective steel casing connected with Misumi's skull. Most of the spectators winced at the sound, and even Naruto was unable to completely suppress his own small grimace. Below, the Leaf Genin dropped in a boneless heap. Temari smirked as the proctor called the match in her favor.

Naruto would've been able to accept these losses on Konoha's behalf and given them the benefit that there were some talented ninja among their ranks if it wasn't for the next round. Hyūga Neji was paired up against Hyūga Hinata, and judging by the trembling of the girl's hands (and body), it was not a battle she wished to partake in. The point was proven further when, instead of moving into anything resembling the Jūken style of taijutsu Naruto knew a little about (courtesy of Kakuzu), Neji remained upright and began to berate and ridicule his relative. Naruto mentally snorted at the tactic; the Hyūga were renowned as a proud and powerful clan, and it would come as a huge disgrace to have what appeared to be their clan heiress (if what Neji was saying was true) give up against a Branch Family member—

"I f-forfeit," stammered Hinata.

Naruto's jaw almost dropped. That's the power of the Hyūga clan! THAT'S PATHETIC!

Outraged and insulted at the display of cowardice, the blond had to be prodded out of his shock by Fū. "You're up," she whispered, and Naruto looked at the screen to find 'Inuzuka Kiba vs. Shinobu' displayed in large letters.

Okay, thought the blond, making his way to the arena, I can't use Jiongu or more than one type of nature manipulation; way too suspicious for a Genin. Probably should stick with Fūton, since I haven't learned that much Doton and there isn't much water here for Suiton.

There's my kenjutsu, he considered, taking his place across from the wild-looking Inuzuka Kiba, but I won't be able to use any wind manipulation with it 'cause of how advanced it is. Taijutsu? He peered curiously at the Leaf Genin and dog facing him. Maybe.


"Oi, Shinobu!" Kiba shouted, "You may as well give up now, 'cause me and Akamaru are gonna wipe the floor with you!" The small white pup standing next to the Konoha-nin barked his agreement.

Naruto felt his eyebrow twitch in annoyance. Jeez, is this what it's like for Kakuzu to deal with me? What a pain…no wonder he's always so cranky.

As the fake Genin silently swore to refrain from overestimating his abilities around Kakuzu ever again, the nukenin's words from the other night echoed in his head. I'll take my time and choose my attacks carefully. Wait for him to make the first move and then decide how to counter it.

"Gijyū Ninpō, Shikyaku no Jutsu!" Kiba dropped to all fours, and Naruto watched as the boy's nails grew longer, his pupils turning into animalistic slits. Then Kiba charged.

Naruto's eyes widened marginally. Fast! Despite his surprise, the blond quickly twisted out of the way of the attack, allowing the Inuzuka to fly by harmlessly. Kiba landed on the floor, claws gouging marks into the tile. He growled slightly, palming several objects Naruto recognized as smoke bombs. They were tossed towards the incognito Genin, exploding upon impact and filling the immediate area with smoke.

Naruto guessed that most Genin would find the haze limiting, but that strategy wouldn't work against a wind-user. He slapped his palms together and then pointed them at the ground, muttering, "Fūton: Reppūshō."

Suddenly, he was airborne. The aerial view allowed for him to oversee the second effect of the Violent Wind Palm – the dispersion of the smoke. He landed easily on his feet and faced Kiba, who growled in slight frustration. "Let's go, Akamaru!" The Konoha-nin threw a pill at his partner – whose fur immediately turned a burnt red color – before crunching on one himself. Their chakra boosted, Akamaru jumped atop Kiba's back, prompting the boy to create a hand sign. "Gijyū Ninpō, Jyūjin Bunshin!"

With a poof of smoke, two feral-looking Kibas replaced the boy and his dog, both in the taijutsu stance of the Four Legs Technique Kiba had activated earlier. The pair dove for Naruto in a wild lunge, claws outstretched. He danced around the first attack and ducked the second, unsheathing his wakizashi and catching the nails of a swipe with the blade from the first's doubling-back.

Then began a fluid pattern of dodging both Man-Beast Clones, attempting to antagonize Kiba into making a mistake through his inability to land a hit. After several more passes, all close enough where Naruto could feel the breeze from the attacks, the Inuzuka and his pet immediately moved into dual, powerful tornadoes with a roar of, "Gatsūga!"

The undercover Rain ninja blinked. "Well that's not good." He formed the seals for the Wind Release: Great Breakthrough, focusing on shaping the wind to be blunt instead of slicing. Pushing forward with his hands, a thick wall of air was sent out, crafted to deflect the two grey whirls heading straight for him.

Kiba and his clone were forced to separate to avoid the attack, creating just enough space for Naruto to capitalize on his technique.

Taking his wakizashi, the blond raised the weapon and sliced into the higher of the two grey tornadoes while narrowly evading the second one. There was a yip of pain as both likenesses of Kiba landed behind Naruto, the one he'd attacked transforming back into Akamaru. Red slashes were visible on the small dog's legs, and he lay down to lick his wounds, whining pitifully.

Kiba somehow managed to look even more feral at this discovery. "You'll pay for hurting Akamaru!" he howled at the Jinchūriki. "TSŪGA!"

As the drilling tornado that was Kiba lunged towards him, Naruto knew that he had to end the battle. Before Jiongu, before Water and Earth Releases, before kenjutsu, Naruto had worked on his mastery over Wind Release jutsu. He was by no means an expert at Fūton techniques, but Kakuzu had taught him enough of the basics that the blond had a good idea of how to manipulate the formless element. It was a challenge, and with all the subsequent training he had found little time to actually continue focusing on it, but he had created one technique that – theoretically – would be powerful enough to end the fight.

"Worth a shot," he muttered, carefully molding his chakra and forming the needed seals. Wind whipped around him, ruffling his clothes as it became concentrated around his right fist. "Fūton…" he began, drawing back the entire limb; Kiba was fifteen feet away. "…Senpūken!"

In the instant Naruto threw his punch, all the condensed air was released in the form of a miniature cyclone roughly six inches in diameter. At such close range and with a huge amount of chakra pumped into it, the ninjutsu collided with and easily overran Kiba's taijutsu, blowing the animalistic boy away and into the far wall. Cracks spider-webbed out from the Leaf Genin's point of impact, and he remained imprinted in the concrete for a number of seconds before collapsing face-first to the tiled floor with a groan.

Hayate coughed. "Um, winner: Shinobu of Amegakure."

"Congrats!" cheered Fū upon Naruto's return to the balcony. She moved forward as if to embrace him, but thought better of it and instead gave him a bright smile. Naruto returned it with one of his own, though it ended up looking cheekier than his companion's.

"It was an impressive display of your skill," Harō commented. The blond took this as a sign that the boy recognized his abilities, and merely nodded in response. He looked to Kakuzu, secretly hoping for some sign from the older ninja that he had done well. When the man inclined his head slightly, Naruto turned his attention back to the floor, a small grin on his features.

Though he hated to admit it, Kakuzu's opinion of his skill did matter to the boy. Seeking approval from the one person who had seen something great in him was not unexpected, simply desirable given his former background in Konoha, he rationalized. Satisfied with the fact that his teacher acknowledged what he was capable of, Naruto vaguely heard Fū wishing Harō good luck.

Curious, the Jinchūriki glanced at the screen announcing competitors, finding that the next battle was between Harō and Sai, the (vaguely) Uchiha look-alike from the same team. While the two males prepared to face-off, Naruto registered that Harō looked…off. It took a moment to realize why, but his eyes widened marginally when a peripheral glance at his feet confirmed his thoughts.

The twin katana that Harō normally carried with him were placed on the floor next to him instead of sheathed on his back.

Naruto opened his mouth to say something about this anomaly, but then decided not to. Harō had proven himself intelligent – if not frustrating at times with his single-minded devotion to 'Pein-sama' – which led to the conclusion that the cobalt-haired youth knew what he was doing.

Below, Harō and Sai were enmeshed in a silent taijutsu battle, neither combatant giving an inch. Watching intently, Naruto was able to admit the kyūsho-jutsu style of combat which Harō employed was rather impressive when not outnumbered three-to-one. It was fluid and graceful in execution, almost comparable to what he had heard about Jūken. Though it was strange that he hadn't yet landed a hit on the Konoha-nin…

Naruto's eyes narrowed suspiciously as Harō blocked Sai's tantō with a kunai, the clang of metal on metal resounding clearly to the balcony. So, perhaps we're not the only higher level ninja in these exams. It seems that even Konoha doesn't play fair when it comes to certain things…or people, he amended, revisiting the concept that Sai was on the Uchiha's team.

Sai jumped back as Harō struck a pressure point on his arm. The fight had continued in a relative stalemate for long enough that he was getting rather tired of keeping up his façade. Putting some more distance between him and his opponent, Sai whipped out his specialized scroll and quickly drew a bird. "Chōjū Giga," he stated, using his chakra to bring the bird to life. The ink construct melded out from the scroll and its creator jumped onto its back, taking to the air and contemplating his next move.

Harō stared at his opponent, now flying high above him. He turned to the proctor and raised his hand. "I forfeit," he announced, much to the surprise of his teammates. Hayate confirmed the decision, allowing the Ame-nin to make his way back to where his temporary team was waiting.

"Why'd you quit?" Naruto asked quietly when he returned, Fū bouncing on the balls of her feet nearby. "You didn't even try any Raiton techniques."

"It would've been suspicious if an entire team of no-names from Ame passed to the finals," Harō explained after a moment. "I thought it better to give up rather than bring unwanted attention to our team by fighting at my hardest."

"Which was why you left your swords behind," Naruto realized.

"Well, yes and no. These katana," he said, replacing the sheath upon his frame, "were formerly owned by one of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen of the Mist."

"Meaning they're easily recognizable," the blond extrapolated.


"Still doesn't explain why you didn't use any ninjutsu."

Harō shot him a reproachful look. "You used Fūton and Kazu used Doton, albeit a rather basic one. You don't think adding a third teammate with a completely separate elemental affinity, let alone the fact that none of them were Suiton and we're supposedly from Ame – where water affinities are most common – wouldn't raise suspicion?"

"…Fair enough," Naruto admitted. There was a tense period where he wasn't sure what else to say and Harō seemed to be waiting for him to speak. "Er, good job," he offered, and Harō nodded before turning away.

"Whoa," gasped Fū. Naruto's head swiveled away from Harō and towards the arena, where Rock Lee was busy fighting Sabaku no Gaara. The Leaf-nin seemed to be disappearing and reappearing at random intervals, trying to break through the sand that was swirling around Gaara.

"Um, what's going on?" Naruto requested.

Behind him, Kakuzu sighed. "Considering the fact that the Suna-nin is actively looking to kill both you and your teammate, your lack of attention to this battle is severely disappointing."

"I was trying to understand Harō's strategy!" protested Naruto.

Kakuzu waved off the excuse as if it were a particularly annoying fly. "I care little for whatever pretenses you have fabricated." He paused, as if to give Naruto a moment to either feel ashamed or retort; the blond did neither. "However, based off of what I have witnessed of the fight, Rock Lee has thrived under the tutelage of Maito Gai; his taijutsu form is of an extremely high caliber for a Genin." As Kakuzu spoke, Lee stepped back from Gaara and opened the fifth of the Eight Gates. "Your friend from Sunagakure, on the other hand," Kakuzu continued sardonically, "appears to have absolutely no taijutsu abilities whatsoever, and in fact has barely moved at all from his original position.

"His control over sand – something which I am sure can be correlated directly to his…host status—" Naruto was sure Kakuzu phrased it to be purposefully ambiguous so as to not give Harō more information than he needed to know "—however, is unparalleled in comparison to anything I have ever seen. He appears to have some form of automatic defense that seems nigh impregnable and so far has only proven ineffective in the presence of extreme speed." The bounty hunter paused in his analysis as Gaara – skin appearing to crack and break off in flakes of sand as a result of Lee's Reverse Lotus – reached out and grabbed an exhausted Lee by his leg and arm with tendrils of sand, crushing the limbs with vindictive pleasure. "Apparently he also has some sort of sand armor coating his body, and appears to be clinically insane," Kakuzu finished blandly (and rather unnecessarily, Naruto thought irritably; he had clearly seen that). The man glanced at his first pupil. "Quite an enemy you two have."

Naruto gulped. "Yeah," he murmured. He shot a cursory glance at Fū, whose eyes were wide with poorly-disguised fear. But he's threatened Fū, and for that he needs to be defeated, he thought, reaffirming his decision to protect his friend at all costs.

The last preliminary match, between a girl named Tenten and one Nara Shikamaru, commenced with little fanfare. Naruto would admit that Tenten seemed to be skilled with a specialty dabbling in (seemingly limitless) mixed weaponry, but the activation of her ultimate technique – Sōshōryū, or Twin Rising Dragons – provided so much shadow from the summoned steel projectiles that the Nara was easily able to use his Kagemane no Jutsu to trap her. Shikamaru forced her to pick up a kunai and hold it to her throat, drawling lazily that she should forfeit.

She acquiesced despondently, and the proctor announced Shikamaru's victory amidst the cheering of his two teammates. Shikamaru took the moment to try and slink back up to the balcony, but the examiner stopped him partway. "Will the winners of the preliminary matches please come down to the floor?" he called.

Naruto and Fū exchanged shrugs, but followed the small procession of victors down from the viewing balcony to the arena floor. The blond only half-listened as the Third Hokage stepped forward and explained that the finals – the real third round of the Chūnin Exams – would take place in a month, in front of a huge audience in order to properly showcase the talents of the prospective Chūnin.

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki drowned out the unnecessary background noise, instead contemplating the skills that Konoha's Genin had displayed. Most of the major clans had been represented in some way in the preliminaries, and even though their abilities were limited by age, the exams had given Naruto a better idea of what each family was capable of. Books only got one so far, especially considering how rare they were outside of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, and Kakuzu had tried to avoid Konoha as much as possible after his failed assassination of the Shodai Hokage, meaning that his information was also limited.

But to see firsthand what the clans specialized in allowed Naruto to better plan how to exact vengeance against the Hidden Leaf…which was so far proving to be impossible. Even assuming years of training and escape from Akatsuki's clutches, one man – no matter how powerful – stood little chance against the force of an entire village; especially when said village had chakra-eating bugs, x-ray vision, body possession and controlling techniques, and the potential to become giants.

Not to mention all the regular forces not belonging to clans, the blond scowled, thinking about Sai and his apparent ability to animate ink. Guerrilla warfare might be the best option, he decided after a period of thought. Get stronger, and then use bounty hunting to pick off the stronger ninja one at a time.

After that, maybe I can find a way to invade the village itself…

When a box was shoved in his direction, Naruto automatically reached inside and grabbed a slip of paper. Despite his inner musings, the proceedings were boring him, and it reflected clearly in his voice when he was asked to read the number imprinted on the sheet. He had learned some manner of patience over his years training with Kakuzu, but his personality required that there was some means to an end in waiting patiently, some higher reason for it. This…formal drivel…was pushing his attention span to its limit with its pointlessness.

He snapped back to attention as the final pairings were decided. Peering intently at the brackets, he saw that Aburame Shino and Sai were fighting the first battle, he was slated to duel Hyūga Neji in the second round, followed by Nara Shikamaru and the Suna-nin Temari, Uchiha Sasuke versus Gaara, and then Fū against Yamanaka Ino. Despite what Kakuzu had said about Gaara's abilities, Naruto hoped that the Uchiha would win the fight so that Fū might not have to fight Gaara in the following round.

The blond registered Kakuzu's presence behind him, and realized belatedly that they had all been dismissed. "What now, Izo-sensei?"

Kakuzu stared down at him. "We train."

Naruto cursed as Fū slammed her fist through the head of his Earth Clone. The copy turned brown and slumped to the ground as formless mud. Concentration broken, the second clone he was creating also lost its cohesion and fell apart only halfway emerged from the ground.

"Better," Fū offered sympathetically. Naruto merely scowled.

The past two weeks had been spent in a training field far removed from the main activity of Konoha's populace. It allowed Fū and Naruto to train to their full extent – though Kakuzu prohibited Naruto from using either Jiongu or summons – while Harō did his own exercises and Kakuzu either researched information or oversaw their progress.

Frustratingly enough, Kakuzu had found it pertinent to interfere in the training and suggest (mock mercilessly until an enraged Naruto accepted) that Fū teach her fellow Jinchūriki the finer points of Doton ninjutsu. Despite what should've been a natural affinity to him because of his kinjutsu, the blond had struggled to learn several of the techniques Fū had decided to teach him. The Earth Clone Technique had come relatively easily to the blond (probably, he guessed, because of his previous training with Kisame in the art of creating water clones, though he found that if his concentration was broken, the replicas would fall apart immediately.

That discovery had led Naruto to being rather irked with his incompatibility with Earth Release ninjutsu. He was a natural at Fūton, far better than Fū (something even Kakuzu found he could not nitpick about), and even Suiton had come to him more naturally than Doton was…he simply couldn't understand what was wrong.

It wasn't that he couldn't perform the earth-related elemental techniques, just that they were annoyingly difficult to master. The few that were a part of his repertoire were simple, supplementary techniques, not quite on the level of Fū's Doton: Doryūheki.

Oh well, he sighed, just another thing to practice, along with genjutsu. It was one of his more inspiring idiosyncrasies, he figured, the desire to push through and eventually overcome any weaknesses in his abilities. Training with Kisame in kenjutsu and Suiton techniques had prompted a mindset capable of putting aside thoughts of impatience and rashness to learn those skills to the best of his ability; learning to control both Fūton and Jiongu had gone in much the same fashion, though in solitude rather than being taught.

No matter how long it took him, Naruto would figure out how to use damn Earth Release ninjutsu.

Meanwhile, Fū formed a single hand sign and a small breeze kicked up the dirt next to her, transforming into her perfect replica. "Show-off," he muttered.

"What, don't think you're a match for a single Chiri Bunshin?" Fū mocked in a pale imitation of Kakuzu.

Naruto smirked. "Suiton: Mizurappa!" He expelled a stream of water which struck the copy, water-logging the dirt and destroying the fragile consistency of Fū's specialized element. "Hah!" crowed the blond, "Your Chiri Bunshin can't stand up against a little water, huh?" he taunted. Fū merely made the sign of the Snake and the moist dirt reformed into a solid Tsuchi Bunshin. "…Crap."

Harō watched as Naruto dodged the double team of Fū and her clone. "I wasn't told much when I was assigned this mission, but shouldn't we come up with some form of strategy for whatever our plan of attack is?" he asked Kakuzu without removing his eyes from the spar. Naruto threw a wind jutsu at Fū, who countered with an Earth-Style Wall.

Seated cross-legged on the ground, back against a tree and ever-present scroll in his lap, Kakuzu snorted. "If there were some measure of completing such a feat, these Konoha fools have cleverly hidden or disposed of any useful evidence with which to do so." He paused to consider his words as Naruto shoved his wakizashi through the earth clone's head and began gloating. "An oxymoron, to be sure."

"It seems we chose a good moment to arrive. Yeah, what good timing."

Harō whirled on the spot, a noise of surprise escaping his lips and hands reaching for his swords. Sticking out from the trunk of the tree Kakuzu was leaning against, a solid three feet above the man's head, was the Venus Fly Trap-encased form of the man who had led Harō to the Akatsuki hideout – Zetsu, if he remembered correctly.

Kakuzu, on the other hand, appeared completely unfazed; in fact, he hadn't even made a motion to recognize the Akatsuki agent's presence. He folded up his scroll and stood up, Zetsu moving out of the way of his six-foot frame. Brushing specks of dust from his clothes, he drawled, "Ah, Zetsu, I was wondering if you would perhaps show up…again," without ever glancing at the other ninja. "Your presence would suggest that we are not under surveillance, correct?"

"Oh, but Kakuzu-san, it almost sounds as if you're displeased to see us," fretted Zetsu's white side as his black half replied, "No one is nearby."

"No, I always look forward to your haphazard appearances," Kakuzu deadpanned, turning to face him. "They always bode so well for me and my personal agenda."

"We are here to provide you with information, not send you to do some task," snarled Black Zetsu, as his entire head bobbed up and down in what Kakuzu inferred to be the white half nodding in agreement. "As former associates of Orochimaru, we have intelligence which you might be lacking and thus find useful. Leader-sama said that since you're doing a favor for us, we should tell you all we know," added White Zetsu. "If you would rather us leave, though, we do have other matters to attend to…"

"Wait." Zetsu, who had slowly started sinking back into the tree, stopped. Kakuzu resisted the homicidal urge he normally experienced when frustrated, knowing that killing the Akatsuki member (or at least attempting to) would be a bad idea. "Brats, get over here."

"Oi, get me out of this thing, you stupid bitch!"

"Not with that mouth, I'm not! Say I'm better than you!"


Kakuzu could feel the headache associated with dealing with idiots building. Eyebrow twitching in mixed annoyance and rage, he shifted his attention towards the two wayward Jinchūriki. Naruto was trapped up to his waist in a dark pool of sludge – Fū's Earth Release: Swamp of the Underworld (a technique he had taught her) – hands also submerged beneath the mud and therefore unable to break free. Opposite him, the green-haired girl was sitting on the ground, watching her fellow Bijū container struggle to escape her ninjutsu and laughing.

The bounty hunter growled and both of his arms lashed out at his pupils; the seemingly infinite amount of black threads his body possessed allowed Kakuzu to clear the field's distance easily. His right hand grasped the top of Naruto's blond head, instantly quieting the boy, while the left one latched around Fū's face and conveniently stifled her laughter.

With a thought, Kakuzu willed the tendrils to shorten, returning his arms to the rest of his body. Naruto popped free of the swamp with an audible squelching sound; he flew through the air and landed belly-first on the ground in front of his teacher with a groan. Simultaneously, Fū was dragged roughly across the earth and deposited next to her blond companion; with both Jinchūriki in front of him, Kakuzu released his grip and allowed his arms to fully reattach to his body. "Your interest in my motives implies that you are interested in whatever information we can get," he told them with slight vindication. Then he turned to face Zetsu. "Continue."

Zetsu blinked. "That was kinda mean, Kakuzu-san. You should be more careful with your students. I liked it…brutal and effective." Kakuzu stared at him silently, red-green eyes narrowing marginally. "Oh, the information…

"As you know, Orochimaru is supposed to attack the village sometime during the third section of the Chūnin Exams," explained White Zetsu, suddenly serious. "His plans involve a combined attack from Suna and Oto backed by the presence of Sabaku no Gaara, the Jinchūriki of the Ichibi."

"I know all of this; Konan informed me of the basics before I took this ridiculous mission," Kakuzu told him impatiently, skating over the fact that he had only recently learned of Oto's existence. "Get to the point."

"Testy," observed Black Zetsu, "but very well. Though we are unsure of the exact circumstances, we know that Orochimaru's plan hinges on releasing Ichibi no Shukaku within Konoha. We believe that he intends on using the chaos the Bijū's presence will create to assassinate the Sandaime Hokage and fulfill his desire for revenge against Konoha." Naruto began muttering lowly about what an interesting idea that was, but didn't interrupt the plant-man. "There is also evidence to support that Orochimaru may have his sights set upon Uchiha Sasuke, assuming his quest to learn all the world's ninjutsu is still a priority.

"Little else is known of his actual invasion plans. He will need to be near the Hokage when the Ichibi is released so as to quickly corner him with minimal outside interference. We believe that Orochimaru may be posing as the Kazekage, though this is purely speculation. The snake is also somewhat paranoid – rightfully so – and is bound to have some sort of guard around him at all times."

Kakuzu waited until he was sure Zetsu was done talking before asking, "What do you know of Orochimaru's abilities?"

White Zetsu grinned. "More than you've found, I'm sure! Orochimaru was known for dabbling in ninjutsu and kinjutsu, so you should expect him to know a wide variety of both elemental and forbidden techniques. Sasori—" both Naruto and Fū jumped slightly at this, recognizing the name from their conversation with the Nanabi and Kyūbi "—said that he often used a sword in combat which he kept hidden in his mouth within a snake," added White Zetsu cheekily. "His contract with the snakes provided him with inspiration for a unique taijutsu style as well as several body modification techniques…and summoning, of course."

Kakuzu raised an eyebrow. "Body modification techniques?"

"Orochimaru has an extremely flexible body, allowing him to twist unnaturally and extend certain body features at his whim. Kinda like you!" White Zetsu offered with unnecessary enthusiasm. The former Taki-nin scowled. "Also, he can recover from any injury and escape from many attacks using an enhanced form of the Kawarimi, like a serpent shedding its skin. We're not exactly sure of the details, but it apparently uses a larger amount of chakra than normal. The rest is up to you. Good luck!"

Zetsu disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving a silent training field behind. Kakuzu mulled over the basics of what he had just been told. Ninjutsu, kinjutsu, kenjutsu, a Summoning Contract, snake-like taijutsu, flexibility, and a specialized Kawarimi…you appear to be a jack-of-all-trades, Orochimaru. I look forward to this fight.

The S-class ninja looked down, spying Naruto, Fū, and Harō looking at him with a variety of expressions: apathy, minor concern, and curiosity predominant. "Fū, Harō, you have two weeks to practice and perfect any techniques you wish to work on," he ordered. Both nodded and immediately moved to the center of the field and began sparring. "Naruto," he continued in the same authoritative voice; the blond flinched slightly in surprise at the use of his name but did little else. "You will learn one of my most useful ninjutsu, a move which may come in handy against the Hyūga you are supposed to fight. Even if it does not, its practical uses are relatively limitless and will serve you well in the future. Now come, we have much work ahead of us."

Naruto followed his teacher into the nearby copse of trees, a small grin on his face. Being taught directly by Kakuzu – while guaranteed to be immensely painful – was likely to be invaluable, and the intensity he felt radiating from the older ninja's very being indicated that his assumption was probably correct.

For the next two weeks, Kakuzu drilled the trio of undercover Genin relentlessly. By the end of the fortnight, all of them felt that they were ready for whatever the Chūnin Exams would throw at them.

If they only knew…

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