Truth & Lies
When faced with that which you don't know the answer, is it the honest bluntness of truth or the comforting deception of lies you seek?
The Land of Fire was a country renowned for its dense foliage and warm climate. Trees grew in excess of hundreds of feet tall, creating a dense canopy which offered shady respite from the sweltering heat of the sun. Thick limbs branched out from tree trunks, creating a web of fulcrums and resting points that ninja – whether citizens of Konohagakure or invaders from foreign nations – often used for speedy traveling.
In all honesty, it was Zetsu's favorite place to visit.
'Visit', of course, was a rather loose term, especially considering that Zetsu was a nukenin, a rogue shinobi. Fortunately, his former home of Kusagakure – the Village Hidden in Grass – had never disclosed to the rest of the world that he was missing, so Zetsu found himself able to freely enjoy the bounties of the world around him.
...For the most part, anyway. Two major obstacles prevented him from being able to experience complete freedom. Firstly was the fact that Kusa, while unwilling to reveal its soiled hands to the world by announcing Zetsu's existence, was still trying to hunt him down. The ninja of the Grass weren't exactly renowned for their skill, and while leading them on a wild goose chase was highly entertaining to one part of the nukenin, knowing that they were always out looking for him was a bit of a mood-killer. Still, he was able to evade them easily for the most part, and had even managed to make a good meal out of their foolhardiness several times in the past, so it wasn't exactly an all-bad situation.
No, the real issue was that if Zetsu ever tried to enter a village like a regular person, an attempt would be made to either capture or kill him on the spot, no questions asked. Being careful to avoid others was something the former Grass shinobi did on a regular basis. His appearance was, mildly put, disturbing to people.
His skin was dual-colored, the left side a pure, snow white, the right side pitch black; there was no fading of hue, just a straight line of change which bisected his body, splitting the two colors down its entire length (barring his feet, which were, strangely enough, both white). Small white nubs lined his body on the black half, parallel to the bisecting line. The man's face reflected the duality of his skin: the only feature on the black half was a pupil-less yellow eye, wide and unblinking; the white side's eye was normal – white sclera, yellow iris – accompanied by a brow, lid, and pupil. Part of a nose was visible on the white side, set above half a mouth filled with rounded teeth. His hair was a light green, the color of cut grass, and encasing his body was a gigantic Venus Fly Trap, the green jaws poised to shut over his head.
Needless to say, Zetsu struck a terrifying figure.
He had learned to accept his appearance after a time, mainly because of the great gifts that came with it. One of them – Kagerō, or Mayfly – allowed Zetsu to merge with any plant life, or even the ground (through plant roots), and travel through those mediums at incredible speeds. It was why he never needed to enter a village through conventional means and why the Land of Fire appealed to his nature – there were simply so many things he could meld into that his options were practically infinite. Plus, as a (former) Hidden Grass shinobi, he was well-versed and interested in different flora, so the wide variety present in the area also fascinated him.
He told himself that the fact that these particular surroundings made his plant-side most comfortable had nothing to do with why he frequented the area as often as he did. That would be admitting that that part of him had a say in how he lived, and the two personalities he already possessed were quite enough as it was.
"I'm hungry," he whined aloud childishly. There was no external response (which was expected), but after a moment of silent debate, the plant-man decided that he was going to indulge himself. While he could go for long stretches of time by either stealing food or feasting off the lay of the land, Zetsu also required fresh human flesh to sate his appetite at times. Normally, Konoha's citizens were relatively well-protected, and Zetsu honestly found it too troublesome to infiltrate the village, pick off a human, and either get engaged in battle with said human (because the nukenin enjoyed the taste of shinobi better than civilians) or risk being discovered and swarmed by other ninja. But sometimes there were extenuating circumstances, and it had been a long time since he had eaten any Konoha-nin... "I wonder if they still have that nice tangy flavor the last one had..."
He looked over to see a shrub of dahlias. Though hanakotoba – the language of flowers – was not one of his more knowledgeable plant subjects, he did know that dahlias represented 'good taste'. The irony of the flowers' meaning struck him as lucky, even if he was intentionally interpreting the meaning of 'taste' to be 'delicious' instead of 'refined perception'. A dark laugh resonated from him as the Venus
Zetsu had found his target. He was a short boy, not yet into his teenage years, with messy blond hair held back by a pair of big green goggles. His choice in clothing was terrible – an orange jumpsuit with a thick white collar, clashing terribly with his bright hair – and even Zetsu, who stood out like a sore thumb in his own right, couldn't believe that the boy had lived for so long wearing something that just screamed 'Kill me!' But if the outfit insisted, Zetsu would be happy to oblige.
It wasn't that the blond was his first choice; children were often unfulfilling as far as meals went. But Konoha was a crowded place, and after discreetly watching passersby from the safety of an oak tree for almost 15 minutes, Zetsu had given up on trying to pick a meal off the street. He had then moved on to the outskirts of the mighty village, scouting out the training fields in the vain hope of finding someone. Previous visits had taught him that Leaf shinobi normally visited the fields in teams – Genin with a Jōnin instructor, for instance – or pairs – Chūnin or Jōnin – so the odds of finding a victim alone had been relatively small.
But lo and behold, Zetsu had been presented with this boy, kicking and punching a post with all his might (which was arguably not much). While the child didn't appear to pose much in the way of a decent meal, people-watching had increased the plant-man's desire for food to a point where being picky was no longer an option. Besides, he could always try again after this appetizer.
It was a bit of an anomaly, Zetsu considered as he merged into the ground, that this boy was by himself. Most Konoha shinobi believed in camaraderie and the Will of Fire, a faith Zetsu personally found to be misguided. The former Kusa-nin upheld the principle that the only person one could rely on was one's self. To find a boy – clearly on the path to become a ninja, if not one already (though foregoing the wearing of the traditional forehead protector if he was one) – who seemed to embrace Zetsu's philosophy and not the popular one of the village intrigued the plant-man.
That the boy was going to be his meal was surely a pitiable coincidence.
Uzumaki Naruto punched the training post in front of him, venting his anger through his fists. Today had been one of those days where nothing had seemed to go his way. First, Sakura had turned him down again when he had asked her for a date, and had then proceeded to ignore his existence for the remainder of the day. Then the class had had taijutsu practice, where Sasuke had thoroughly outclassed him and made him look bad in front of everyone (which, of course, included Sakura). After that, Iruka had yelled at him for a solid five minutes for falling asleep during class, giving him an hour's detention (amidst the tittering of his classmates) for his inattention.
But what could he do? Sakura liked Sasuke (though he couldn't really understand why), and Naruto hated people like the stuck-up Uchiha, so he wasn't going to try to change himself to be more like him, even if it was to get the girl. He had been alone for all his life, with no family or clan to teach him any special ninja techniques or styles, so finding a way to improve his skills to beat anyone else in his class was rather difficult. And it wasn't his fault that history was boring!
All-in-all, Naruto found it almost impossible for the day to get any worse. He placed his hands on his knees and scowled at the ground, mad at the unfairness of the world.
It was the only thing that saved him from certain death.
Naruto stumbled backwards and tripped over his own feet as a pair of enormous green jaws burst forth from the earth and snapped shut where he had just been standing. There had been no real warning to the attack except that the ground had bulged slightly, outlining a jagged, teeth-like pattern on whatever was surfacing. That and years of avoiding being captured by the people he pulled pranks on had taught the blond to act first, ask questions later, and one panicked decision later, he was sitting on his rear, still alive.
The green thing in front of him growled. It opened to reveal a man's face – if it could be called that – with yellow eyes and green hair, his skin an even split of black and white. "You moved," whined the human...creature...thing. The thing's voice was sort of immature and decidedly masculine, if a tad younger-sounding than Naruto would have expected. "How did he see us?"
"Wh-what are you?" stammered Naruto, pointing a shaky finger straight at the man. The man's reference to himself as more than one person went unnoticed.
"Who," corrected a different voice, this one dark, throaty, and tainted with malice. Naruto looked around, half-expecting to see something else emerging from the ground prepared to eat him. Spying nothing, he returned his gaze to the man in front of him in time to see the white side's eye blink in mild confusion. "We are Zetsu," spoke the first voice, seemingly offended, "and we are a 'who', not a 'what'." The man's mouth moved when this voice spoke, so Naruto assumed he was actually speaking, though it didn't explain where the other voice came…from…
"We?" Naruto managed weakly. "There's more than one of you?" Then, "What?"
"We are a person, and therefore a 'who'," snarled the darker voice. Watching the so-called person, Naruto noticed that unlike when the lighter voice spoke, the white side's mouth didn't move for this other voice.
It was just a guess, but... "A-are you the black side?"
"...Can we eat him now? He's irritating me. I don't want to," replied the white side, and Naruto heaved a sigh of relief; at least that part of this man liked him. Wait...eat me? "Not yet anyway."
Or not... Naruto retracted mentally, unsure of what to do. The black half growled something inaudible, luring the other side into an argument. Naruto rose slowly, deciding to make his escape while his predator was occupied with...himself. He turned around and began to sneak away…
Only to bump into something solid. "Where do you think you're going?" No longer submerged in the ground – and more importantly, somehow right in front of him – stood the figure. Piercing yellow eyes stared down at Naruto from between the massive jaws of what, upon closer inspection, appeared to be some sort of plant. The plant encased the man from his waist to at least two feet above his head; from the waist down he was dressed in blue pants with bandages wrapped around his ankles, and ninja sandals adorned his feet, both of which were, strangely enough, white.
Despite the fact that he was surely about to die, Naruto's mouth decided to move faster than his body (and brain). "How did you get here so fast?" He almost slapped himself for his own stupidity as the question left his lips; those would be his last words?
But nothing happened. He opened one eye – when did I even close them? – to see the plant-man staring down at him with what he guessed was something akin to curiosity. "Tell me, child, why are you out here by yourself?"
Naruto scowled, closing the eye again to try and rid himself of the reminder that he was perpetually alone, and crossed his arms. "I've always been by myself, as long as I can remember. Everyone in the village hates me. But one day I'll be Hokage, and then they'll all have to respect me!" Instead of the ridicule that usually greeted this proclamation, dead silence rang in the training area. The blond opened his eyes to find that the strange person was no longer there.
He debated with himself on whether or not to report the man's presence to anyone, but then decided against it. Even if someone did believe him (which was unlikely), he had no real evidence that anyone else had even been in the area, let alone an idea of where he had gone. The whole incident felt so surreal that Naruto wondered if the plant-man hadn't just been a figment of his imagination.
…Maybe I'll just go home now.
"We should have eaten the child. There is no guarantee he won't say anything to the higher-ups of Konoha. You worry too much. And even if he does say anything, what's it matter? No one in the village can catch us." His black side laughed. "True, the Konoha-nin are fools."
Zetsu ate the second of two deer he had killed, mulling over his recent discovery of the blond boy. Humans tasted much better than venison, but the deer meat would sate his appetite at least temporarily; there was much for him to think about. It was previously unheard of for him to leave a target alive, simply because there had never been a reason to. Black Zetsu didn't understand why the child had been left alive – a scary thought, considering that he was the more intellectual half – but then again, White Zetsu couldn't exactly explain away the reason either, and he had been the one to make the decision.
It had been a flight of fancy to leave the boy alive. There was nothing to be accomplished by not eating him; in fact, it was more dangerous to not kill him. But something in the way the blond had stood his ground against Zetsu, and in the momentary glimpse at his life, struck a chord within the plant-man.
Forced isolation. It wasn't quite the same philosophy Zetsu himself lived by – even if it was his lifestyle – but it was merely a stone's throw away from his personal motto. However, it was how Zetsu had started out, having no alternative but to go into solitude to live his life. There were differences, of course, in that the former Grass shinobi had entered isolation to begin his life anew, while the blond child was essentially trapped in his current, confined role, but those were arbitrary distinctions.
The child had potential. His intelligence left something to be desired – though it hadn't taken him overly long to figure out Zetsu was two personalities in one – but then again, White Zetsu's childishness had been insufferable at first, too, so that could be overlooked. More interesting was that the boy's youth and seeming pariah status meant he could easily be molded to the viewpoint of whoever gave him attention first.
That was an intriguing prospect.
Zetsu avoided all allegiance to either village or person, mostly because it contradicted with what he believed in. The mere idea that he was almost considering teaching the blond to embrace his ideals was akin to blasphemy. There was nothing to be gained by undergoing such a venture.
So why did he still feel a strange lure to do something?
"There are only two options," growled Black Zetsu. "Either we leave and find a good meal to forget everything, or…or…" echoed White Zetsu.
The thought was left unfinished. Talking out loud was Zetsu's way of reasoning through things both halves were conflicted on; it wasn't a particularly often occurrence (anymore), but the method was still helpful when it did happen. Still, some things were better left unsaid.
We go back.
Using the Kagerō, Zetsu spent the next three days merged with all sorts of flora, watching the blond child he had tried eating go through the rigors of everyday life. Granted, his life was unbelievably mundane, but Zetsu found it interesting that what the boy had told him actually appeared to be quite true. He would wake up and go to the Academy from morning until the middle of the afternoon, where he would then head out to the training field Zetsu had met him in (if he didn't have to serve detention). After that, he would sit down to dinner at a place called Ichiraku Ramen, where he would down several bowls of the noodles and broth.
As boring as his routine was, the child was a prime candidate for Zetsu's philosophy. For the most part, the rest of his class either jeered at his mistakes or ignored him to the best of their abilities; whispers followed him as he walked through the streets, snide remarks and cruel barbs tailed him like his own shadow. He was already ostracized from society. With a push in the right direction, he could very easily be manipulated into Zetsu's way of thinking.
The only issue the plant-man could find with this peculiar development was that interacting with the boy would mean contradicting the same philosophy he was trying to teach. Having never come across such a situation before, Zetsu was a bit confused on how to proceed. On the one hand, it would be interesting to pass on his way of thinking to a fresh ninja who could be sculpted as he saw fit; on the other hand, doing so went against everything he knew.
Zetsu believed that the only person one could rely on was one's self. Technically, he wasn't putting his faith in the child, merely tutoring him in his own worldviews and ninja know-how. As long as the former Kusa-nin remained reliant upon his own abilities, he wasn't breaching his beliefs. Satisfied with using that logic, the next step would be to see if the boy was actually willing to be taught by him.
Which was why, as the sun set on the third day of Zetsu's observation, he moved from a tree to the ground, surfacing 20 feet away from where the blond boy – Naruto, he had learned was the child's name – was hitting the same training post. His appearance startled Naruto from his training, and Zetsu watched him hesitate in his motions, preparing, he guessed, to flee at the slightest sign of movement.
The nukenin remained half-merged with the ground, keeping only his torso and above visible to the blond. "You didn't run," noted Zetsu. There was a long pause before the boy shook his head. "Brave little fool, aren't you?"
When Zetsu didn't say anything else, Naruto took a tentative step backwards. "Y-you're not gonna eat me…are you?" Both sides of the plant-man responded in the negative, the duality of the voices putting the blond even more on edge. His eyes darted around, still looking for a chance to escape; almost being eaten apparently made the prey highly wary of the predator, Zetsu mused idly. "S-so why are you here?"
Zetsu grinned; with his altered appearance and blunted teeth, the gesture came off as eerie and grotesque. The fact that the child was nervous around him boded well for the respect he could garner through fear. "We came to make you an offer. Would you be interested in learning from us?"
That stopped Naruto in his tracks. His nerves calmed down a tad with the knowledge that he (apparently) wasn't about to become this man's meal, but his mind began spinning at the offer. "You wanna train me?" The yellow eye on the plant-man's white side blinked. Naruto paused before giving a response, considering the idea.
This man was clearly a skilled ninja, capable of escaping the watchful eye of Konoha's own shinobi and possessing talents Naruto had never seen before. He was offering to essentially become Naruto's private tutor, something the blond was sorely lacking and desperately desirous to have. But things generally didn't come without a price… "What do you get outta this? And why me?"
"When you're sad and alone, all you can count on is yourself." Naruto cocked his head curiously, clearly not understanding. Zetsu sighed. "You've been alone for a long time," empathized the white half. "Such a lifestyle should have taught you that relying on other people is a foolish endeavor."
Naruto nodded, either missing or ignoring the fact that he was going to be reliant upon this strange man. "So what are you gonna teach me? Oh, oh! What about the way you pop up in places, can you teach me that?"
Zetsu blinked in surprise. It was astonishing how quickly the boy had gone from being hesitant about his presence to being excited about the prospect of learning from him. Perhaps he, too, had some sort of psychological disorder? That was something to look into. "No," replied the former Kusa-nin. Kagerō wasn't a technique that could be performed by any random ninja, and like the rest of Zetsu's oft-used jutsu arsenal, was unique to his body structure.
The blond looked momentarily stumped, but brightened again instantly. "Taijutsu? Ooo, how 'bout some cool ninjutsu?"
The plant-man stared at him. "No." When he had worked for Kusagakure, both of those areas were necessary aspects of Zetsu's skill set. He had possessed moderate talent in both hand-to-hand combat and Doton ninjutsu – nothing overly spectacular, but certainly enough to get by. After he had come into ownership of his current body, any prowess in those fields had been ignored (though not forgotten) in lieu of his more useful abilities. "You will still have to attend the Academy to obtain those skills. Or learn them from your Jōnin-sensei. Or learn them by your own hand. Do not put your faith in others to assist you." The hypocrisy in his statements, again, seemed to roll off the blond like water off a duck.
Naruto frowned at him. "Well then, what can you teach me?"
"Botany?" Naruto echoed incredulously.
"The study of plants," stated Zetsu's darker side. The boy began to protest, but a growl from the same, eviler half stopped him. "With time you will learn that nature can either be a worthwhile friend or the harshest of foes. It really will be useful for you to know."
Naruto shrugged, unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth. "If you say so."
Three weeks later found Naruto tromping off to the training grounds in preparation for his daily lesson with Zetsu, whose name he had been reminded of two days into their training. The man was interesting, that Naruto could willingly admit. Through his time spent with the former Kusa-nin, Naruto had already picked out some of Zetsu's more peculiar traits.
For one thing, he was still adjusting to Zetsu's duality (he was hesitant to call it a second personality because Zetsu often seemed to be two people in one, but that might've been his imagination). Black Zetsu and White Zetsu – as Naruto had taken to mentally referring to each of the man's halves – each possessed his own opinions and personality, though they both seemed to agree on certain subject matters. He had also noticed a pattern in the man's speech, where when both halves were in agreement, Zetsu would refer to himself as 'we' or 'us'; when one side was expressing his own opinion, he would refer to himself as a singular entity. Naruto found the disparity in what Zetsu agreed with himself on to be somewhat amusing, if simultaneously head-pounding.
White Zetsu, who seemed to be the more laidback, curious, and – dare he say it – playful side, had a tendency to find Naruto's confusion and frustration to be humorous more than anything else. The plant-man's dark half was serious, straightforward, and highly intelligent, possessing a sinister nature which reminded Naruto somewhat of the treatment of the villagers. The main difference, though, was that Black Zetsu never seemed intentionally cruel with his barbs, merely matter-of-fact (or at least matter-of-fact in alignment with his own beliefs).
But Naruto found that he couldn't complain too much about Zetsu's quirks. True to his word, the man was teaching him all about Konoha's flora, from medicinal properties of herbs to poisonous qualities of plants. The information was vast, and it shocked Naruto at how little he knew about his surroundings, even if he found his mind wandering at certain points during Zetsu's lessons. Such inattention often resulted in Black Zetsu snapping at him for his inability to memorize important facts, not to mention repeated lectures to make sure Naruto had the information drilled home, but Naruto bore through both because he had someone who was willing to pay him attention.
Every day he would meet Zetsu at the training grounds, where the man would lead him into a different part of Konoha's surrounding foliage, point out different plants, and lecture him on their properties. Zetsu always remained half-merged with some form of vegetation during their sessions, only gesturing towards whatever he was talking to and physically interacting with Naruto as little as possible. In fact, now that he thought about it, the only time Zetsu had ever touched Naruto was on the first day of their lessons…and even then, it had only been the briefest of contact from the white side.
Zetsu's form emerged from the ground as Naruto entered the training area. "Stand over there," he ordered, pointing at a location opposite the training posts.
Naruto shrugged in confusion but did as he was told. Due in part to being taught by the man, Naruto had quickly gotten over his terror of Zetsu induced by almost becoming his meal at their first meeting; he had little to fear now except Black Zetsu's somewhat short temper. Even though some of the information Zetsu taught seemed unnecessary, he had yet to steer the blond in the wrong direction or sabotage his learning.
On a short stump in the area Zetsu had indicated was placed a cloth bundle held together by a cord. Naruto undid the tie to reveal a pile of kunai and senbon. Picking up one of the thin needles, he ran his fingers along its length, purposely pricking his pointer on the tip to test its sharpness. He looked up in time to see an exact replica of his likeness step away from Zetsu and disappear in the direction of the town. The senbon fell from his slack hand and hit the pile of weaponry with a small clang. "What was that?"
"Narikawari no Jutsu," growled Black Zetsu. "Substitute Technique," offered the lighter side. "It's why the village isn't suspicious of your whereabouts, Naruto-kun."
"I thought that was the Kawarimi."
"That is the Substitution Technique. More correctly known as the Body Replacement Technique."
"Oh. …Well, can I learn what you did?"
Naruto scowled at the pile of weaponry in front of him. While he appreciated the fact that Zetsu was taking the time to actually teach him something, it was rather frustrating to not learn anything…substantial, as far as new jutsu went. Especially since Zetsu had some pretty cool techniques. "Why not?!" he demanded.
"Because you don't look like this!" snarled the other male. Naruto recoiled a bit at his tone; despite Black Zetsu's shorter fuse than his more polite half, he had never reacted with such vehemence at the blond before. "Our jutsu are unique to us, Naruto-kun," placated White Zetsu, "which is why you can't learn any of them."
Naruto nodded slowly, taking up his previous position with the mindset to try to not irritate Zetsu again that day. He waited for his teacher(s) to say something, but they seemed to be having a silent argument. Black Zetsu – with no facial features to speak of – was a blank slate as far as reading his mood. After a minute, White Zetsu spoke up. "You're set to graduate tomorrow, right, Naruto-kun?" The blond's head bobbed once again, the thought of not passing not even crossing his mind. "Well, once that happens you'll spend a lot of time out on missions and with your team, meaning our time together will be more limited. We want to be sure that you are prepared to use some of the tools we have taught you."
The blond picked up a kunai, admiring the difference in the quality from what he owned. He didn't know where Zetsu got the throwing knives or needles, but they were certainly nice looking. "But Zetsu, you've been teaching me all about plants. What's that gotta do with kunai and senbon?"
"Poison," growled Black Zetsu, "or do you not remember learning that? In liquid form, poison can be more easily transmitted into the bloodstream through a medium," explained White Zetsu, "hence the senbon and kunai."
Naruto's brows furrowed skeptically. "Is poison really that good though? I mean, from what you've said, it takes a lot of work for something kinda…unimpressive."
"You have clearly never heard of either Chiyo or Sasori of Sunagakure."
"Both were experts in poison, and Chiyo created several brews during the Second Shinobi World War which could only be countered by Tsunade of the Sannin. You've heard of her, I presume."
"Your lack of knowledge pertaining to your own village is simply astounding. The point is that it really is an effective method of fighting, if used properly. Proper ninja learn how to assassinate from the shadows, something poison does quite readily. Experts in poison dip their weapons in their mixtures to intoxicate their opponents. I personally preferred senbon when using man-made weapons because of how much easier to maneuver they are."
Naruto looked troubled and confused. "But I haven't even tried making any poisons yet. How do I know if I'm actually gonna be good at using them?"
"Then perhaps you should practice," snarled his tutor, "or else what was the purpose in teaching you? It's something you should work on in your free time," agreed the lighter side, "but for now, perhaps we should work on your precision and accuracy." He moved slightly to reveal a target attached to one of the training posts. "Have at it."
The next hour was spent with Naruto throwing a mixture of kunai and senbon – requiring some experimentation, since senbon weren't reviewed as thoroughly in the Academy – at the target. None of them hit the bull's-eye, though several were scattered about the outer rings. Naruto grew increasingly frustrated throughout the session as his ineptness with the ninja tools become more and more apparent.
"You seem to have little talent for projectile weapons," noted Black Zetsu idly, grabbing several kunai and senbon littering the ground behind the target.
"Shut up!" snapped Naruto, temper fraying. "Like you can do any better!" Zetsu immediately vanished into the ground, and Naruto mentally panicked, thinking that he had driven off his tutor with his words. Again, his mouth had chosen to retort before he could really think about what he was saying.
The plant-man reappeared next to him, causing Naruto to sigh in relief. Zetsu's arm flashed forward in a swift movement that Naruto couldn't catch. His other arm – the black side's – came up and pointed towards the target; Naruto's head swiveled to it.
Stuck in the bull's-eye, just slightly off-center, was a single senbon. White Zetsu flashed Naruto a triumphant grin as the darker half stated, "You were saying?"
The blond's mouth opened and closed like a fish's out of water before he hung his head in shame. "Sorry, Zetsu," he mumbled, picking up a senbon and twiddling it between his fingers.
"It's okay Naruto-kun," soothed White Zetsu, "just try to focus. The motion is in the wrist more than the arm; try not to hold it so rigidly. Now concentrate, and throw when you feel ready." Naruto waited, squinting hard at the target in an attempt to visualize the path the needle would take. His arm moved, not nearly as fast at his tutor's, and his wrist flicked out, releasing the thin weapon. Beside him, Zetsu nodded. "Very well done, Naruto-kun." The senbon, while not buried in the center of the target, was in the second smallest ring, close to the ring surrounding the bull's-eye. Naruto felt a swell of pride at this accomplishment – in the Academy, whenever he had tried to prove his superiority over Sasuke in weapons' practice, he had always ended up failing miserably. It was nice to see that he was making some progress. "Keep at it, you still need the practice."
…Well, at least he had impressed White Zetsu.
Another hour and a half passed before Naruto decided to call it quits. He could hit the target 7 times out of 10 with senbon (which he had decided to focus on when they felt less bulky in his hands than kunai), though his accuracy for piercing the center still left something to be desired. At the end of the session, Naruto helped Zetsu gather all the weaponry, dumped it upon the cloth bundle, and waited for the plant-man to tie it together. When that was done, Zetsu turned to him and handed him the full package. "These are yours now, Naruto-kun," stated White Zetsu. "You should practice your aim whenever you have the opportunity."
Naruto could only stare at the gift in mute shock. Barring the meals Iruka or the Hokage sometimes offered to pay for at Ichiraku Ramen, nobody had ever given him anything before. It was simply unheard of. Overcome by emotion, he moved to show Zetsu his gratitude…
"Touch me and die."
…Or he would just settle for being appreciative. "Thank you, Zetsu." He bowed slightly, the first sign of respect he'd ever shown anyone, and then practically skipped away. The former Kusa-nin watched him go impassively before disappearing into the ground.
Naruto trudged through the forest surrounding the training area he frequented with Zetsu, mind in a tizzy. High above, the moon reflected off the metallic surface of the blond's new hitae-ate (it was technically Iruka's current one bequeathed to him, but technicalities…), which was gripped with white-knuckled intensity in his right hand.
After failing the Academy Graduation Exam for his third time earlier that day – or was it yesterday? It definitely seemed like it was past midnight by now – Naruto had been approached by his other teacher, Mizuki, and was told about an alternate method to become a Genin. He had (rather foolishly, in hindsight) accepted the white-haired man's talk at face value, and had proceeded to steal the (apparently sacred) Scroll of Seals.
During the ensuing fight between Mizuki and Iruka, Naruto had learned two very significant things. One was a technique from the scroll, Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, which allowed him to produce massive quantities of Shadow Clones for combat. Considering how terrible he was at the standard Bunshin no Jutsu, the Shadow Clone Technique was simply a godsend.
Then he had learned the reason for his being ostracized from the village – the Yondaime Hokage, his hero, had sealed the Kyūbi no Yōko, the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, into him. And while Iruka insisted that he wasn't a demon – amidst Mizuki's loud proclamations that he was one – and had even dubbed him an official graduate following the recovery of the Scroll of Seals, Naruto was still confused. After helping get his teacher to the hospital, he had immediately run off, ripping off the forehead protector in the process.
Too many thoughts were rushing through his mind, conflictions of different ideals running rampant and crowding his ability to think. He blamed Zetsu for exposing him to such a way of thinking; without the plant-man, Naruto probably would've been perfectly content with just accepting Iruka's explanation and leaving everything else alone.
So he was seeking out Zetsu's counsel to try and straighten things out.
Naruto was now deep within the forest where he assumed Zetsu was currently living. "Zetsu?" he called out hesitantly. Something slithered around his feet, and before he could do anything, something long and thin was wrapped around his body, binding his arms to his sides. His yelp of surprise was cut short as the thing promptly gagged him.
The wide, unblinking yellow eye of Black Zetsu peered out from a nearby tree. Strangely enough, to Naruto at least, his white side was…blank. No eye, no nose, no mouth. He had little time to wonder about that when his tutor spoke. "Greetings, child. Here I thought our meetings during the day were enough for you." Naruto struggled to respond, but the gag prevented him from saying anything coherent. "I suppose I should allow you to speak," Black Zetsu mused.
Mouth free, Naruto immediately spat out the taste of whatever had gagged him and asked, "What was that? And will you let me go?!"
"A vine," replied the plant-man as if it were obvious. Inwardly, he smirked. It was quite amusing to watch Naruto struggle against his bonds. He had sensed the boy coming, of course, but his sadism dictated that he get some mileage out of terrifying him for a bit while he had the opportunity. "And not just yet. Perhaps you would like to explain why you have sought me out."
Naruto slumped suddenly, all the fight leaving his system. "I didn't pass the Graduation Exam this morning," he began sullenly, "but one of the teachers said that I could pass if I learned a jutsu from this scroll the Old Man had. So I stole the scroll and learned Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, but then Iruka-sensei found me and he figured out that Mizuki had tricked me." Distracted by his retelling of his adventure, Naruto didn't register the loosening of the vine that was holding him hostage. "Then Mizuki told me that the Yondaime Hokage couldn't kill the Kyūbi, so instead he sealed it inside of me. Iruka-sensei says I'm not a demon, but…I don't know who to believe. Everyone treats me like I'm a really filthy piece of garbage…" He shot a somewhat pleading glance at Zetsu's shadowy figure, silently asking for guidance.
There were obvious details missing in Naruto's rather fragmented retelling of the story, but Black Zetsu was intelligent enough to fill in the holes. The 'Old Man' was the Hokage, this Mizuki individual was the teacher who had tricked Naruto originally, and there had been some sort of history lesson that ended with Naruto discovering he was the jailor to the Kyūbi. That was an interesting tidbit of information, but he could focus on that at some later period in time. Right now, he had a point to prove.
If Black Zetsu possessed a mouth, he would've been grinning maliciously at how well things had played into his hand.
"Have you learned a lesson from this incident?"
Naruto jerked suddenly, startled by the question. "What?"
"By unquestioningly obeying someone you saw as a superior, you not only committed a felony against Konohagakure, but you have proven yourself vulnerable to blindly accepting the opinions of others. If you had not listened to the hearsay of this Mizuki, you would not be in the midst of this personal conundrum.
"Summarily, you have received conflicting views about yourself from two people you formerly saw as some sort of role models. Now, one of them has betrayed you, but even the opinion of the other is not enough to convince you that the first one lied. So you come to me for advice. My question is: have you learned something from what has happened?"
Naruto stared at his tutor, digesting the lecture. Zetsu was intent on forcing Naruto to think for himself, something that the blond was ill-inclined to do, even though it would surely turn out to be a powerful asset someday. Intelligence was not one of his key strengths, but with enough time, he could reason through a situation. Zetsu's favorite saying popped into his head with all the suddenness of a lightning bolt. "You want me to rely on my own abilities," he responded slowly, almost unsure of his answer.
"…There is hope for you yet. Yes, you need to learn that trusting in other people has a tendency to backfire. Look at where it got you with this Mizuki person. There is nothing to be gained by heeding the advice of others, especially since the majority of them are fools."
The blond peered at him intently, mind working with this resurfaced train of thought. "…Why should I trust what you say then?"
Zetsu's dark laughter echoed in the forest. "Quite clever," he admitted. "You shouldn't." Naruto's surprise must have been clearly displayed on his face, for the nukenin continued, "Your own opinions are the only ones which should influence you. That is the lesson I have been attempting to teach you. My main purpose has been to guide you to that conclusion. Now, do you believe that you're a demon?"
"No," he replied after a moment of thought, "I guess not." He paused. "Are…are you gonna leave? You know, now that I understand what you've been trying to teach me…?"
"No," Black Zetsu informed him curtly. "You are still young and naïve, and as such are prone to the fallacies of your age. I have invested time and effort into your tutelage thus far, and I will not abandon my project midway, especially after this breakthrough." If Naruto took offense at being deemed a project – or any of the other descriptors Black Zetsu had dubbed him – he didn't show it. "I can tell that despite your realization of my ideal, you are still unsure what to believe. It is good to ask questions, though you should not invest your faith in others for the answers to them. Draw your own conclusions."
Naruto's eyes closed tightly in what Zetsu recognized as his thinking pose, and then opened after a time, accompanied by an agreeing nod. "Okay, Zetsu. Thanks for the help." He turned and began to walk away, but then hesitated and asked without looking back, "Do you think I'm a demon?"
"Would it change your opinion of yourself if I said 'yes'?"
The blond shrugged half-heartedly. "Probably not anymore. Just curious."
There was no response, and Naruto began his trek again before the deep voice of his tutor spoke. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Black Zetsu stated simply. He said nothing more, and Naruto knew that the conversation was over.
As he headed back to the village proper, he considered Zetsu's departing words. Cryptic as they were, Naruto felt as if the plant-man didn't view him as reincarnation of the fox, which helped align his own views about himself. As much as he would've liked to say other people's opinions didn't matter, Zetsu was probably the closest thing Naruto had to a friend (the Hokage and Iruka didn't really count…they acted more like superiors), and what he thought of the blond mattered. In the three weeks since they'd met, Naruto had grown to respect Zetsu's opinions about things, even if they were a bit different from how he usually thought. And although the nukenin's teaching methodology was strange, it was also proving to be interesting and effective.
But Naruto thought that maybe Zetsu's last words said more about what the plant-man thought about himself rather than how he viewed Naruto. Zetsu was…strange…that was certain, but the blond didn't really consider him 'demonic'. He idly pondered the idea of telling his tutor that he didn't think he was a demon, but then decided against it. If there was one thing Naruto figured he could take from this night, it was that Zetsu didn't believe what anyone thought of him – good or bad – mattered, and neither should he.
His hand clenched a little tighter around the hitae-ate, and he stopped for a minute to tie it around his head. Staring at the moon, his expression morphed into a grin.
Things are gonna be interesting from now on.