Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Author's Note: Please note that this Zetsu is NOT canon!Zetsu. He will have roughly the same personality and techniques, but his history is not the same; nor is he a member of Akatsuki. (Edited 2/4/2022)
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. True freedom would require overcoming two major obstacles. First 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 wild goose chases was highly entertaining in one respect, knowing that they were always out looking for him was a bit of a mood-killer. Still, they were easy enough to thwart, and he'd even managed to make a solid meal out of their foolhardiness several times in the past, so it wasn't exactly an all-bad situation.
Even still, Zetsu tended to be careful to stay away from others, not just because it was easier for his life to pick his own battles, but because the former Grass shinobi struck a terrifying figure to even the hardiest of ninja.
His skin was dual-toned, the left side a pure, snow white, the right side pitch black, a perfect bisect accented by small white nubs on the black half that paralleled the midline split. 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.
He had learned to accept his inhuman appearance over time, mainly because of the great gifts that came with it. One of them – Kagerō, the Mayfly technique – allowed Zetsu to merge with any plant life, including the ground (through plant roots), and travel at incredible speeds. It was one of the reasons the Land of Fire appealed to him; there were so many things he could meld into that his options were practically infinite. Plus, as a (former) Hidden Grass shinobi, he was well-versed in different flora, so the wide variety present through the country 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, voice childishly petulant. There was no external response (not that he expected one), but after a moment of silent debate, the plant-man decided that he was going to indulge himself. While he normally survived by either stealing food or feasting off the lay of the land, the peckish need for fresh human flesh was surfacing again. Normally, Konoha's citizens were relatively well-protected, and it was honestly a little troublesome to infiltrate the village, pick off a human, and either fight them (because shinobi tasted better than civilians) or risk being discovered and swarmed by other ninja, but it had been a long time since he'd eaten any Konoha-nin… "I wonder if they still have that nice tangy flavor the last one had…"
He looked over and spied 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 emanated from him as the Venus Fly Trap closed around his head and he sank into the earth.
Zetsu had found his target: 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 outfit with a thick white collar that clashed 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 clothing insisted, Zetsu was 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, the ex-Grass shinobi 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 only made him hungrier 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. Life's harsh lessons had taught the former Kusa-nin that the only person one could rely on was one's self. To find a boy – clearly on the path to become a shinobi, if not one already (although foregoing the traditional forehead protector if he was one) – who seemed to embrace Zetsu's philosophy and not the popular one of his village was intriguing.
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. It had been one of those days where nothing seemed to go his way. First, Sakura had turned him down again when he'd asked her on 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 (including 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 to be more like him, even if it was to get the girl. He'd been alone all his life, with no family or clan to teach him any special 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 thought it almost impossible for the day to get any worse. Taking a quick breather, 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 from the earth and snapped shut where he'd just been standing. The attack had occurred with almost no warning, just the ground bulging with a jagged, teeth-like pattern on whatever was surfacing. That and years of avoiding being captured by the people he pranked had taught the blond to act before asking questions, 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. Its voice sounded almost childish but decidedly masculine, younger than Naruto would have expected given his size and appearance. "How did he see us?"
"Wh-what are you?" stammered Naruto, pointing a shaky finger straight at the man.
"Who," corrected a dark, throaty voice tainted with malice, a complete contrast to the first voice. 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 with apparent 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, baffled, "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… "Are you the black side?"
"…Can we eat him now? He's irritating me. I don't wanna anymore," replied the white side, almost petulant, and Naruto heaved a sigh of relief; at least that part of this weird person liked him. Wait…eat me? "Not yet anyway."
Maybe not… Naruto retracted mentally, unsure how to react. The black half growled something inaudible, luring the other side into an argument. Naruto climbed slowly to his feet, deciding to make his escape while this…man…was occupied with…himself. He turned around and began to sneak away…
He bumped 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 his would-be predator. Piercing yellow eyes stared down at Naruto from between the massive jaws of what, upon closer inspection, appeared to be some sort of plant. It encased the man from his waist to at least two feet above his head; he was clothed only in blue sweatpants, bandages wrapped around his ankles and regulation shinobi sandals on his feet, both of which were, strangely enough, white.
Despite the fact that he was surely about to die, Naruto's mouth was faster than his body (and brain). "How did you get here so fast?" The moment the words slipped past his lips, he almost slapped himself for his own stupidity; that would be the last thing he'd say?
But nothing happened. He opened one eye – when did I even close them? – to see the plant-man staring at him with 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," he grumbled dourly. "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 through 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'd 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's no guarantee he won't say anything to Konoha's hierarchy. 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 at least temporarily sate his appetite; there was much for him to think about. It was unheard of for him to leave a target alive simply because there had never been a reason to. Zetsu's darker side didn't understand why the child had been left alive – a scary thought, considering that he was the more intellectual and rational half – but then again, his lighter half couldn't exactly explain the reason either, and he had been the one to make the decision.
It had been a flight of fancy, that was all. 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, having no alternative but to go into solitude to live his life – but it was merely a stone's throw away from his personal motto. There were differences, of course, in that the ex-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, his own 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 what he believed in. The mere idea that he was almost considering teaching the blond to embrace his ideals was practically blasphemous. 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 his dark side. "Either we leave and find a good meal to forget everything, or…or…" echoed his other half.
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, he found, 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 mid-afternoon, where he would then head out to the training field Zetsu had met him in (when he didn't serve detention). After that, he would sit down to dinner at a place called Ichiraku Ramen, where he would down several bowls of 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 tailing 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. 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 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'd learned – was repeatedly 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," Zetsu noted. There was a long pause, and then the boy shook his head. "Brave little fool, aren't you?"
When Zetsu didn't say anything else, Naruto took a tentative step backwards. "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. Blue eyes darted around, still looking for a chance to escape; almost being eaten had apparently raised his hackles, Zetsu mused idly. "S-so why are you here?"
Zetsu grinned; with his altered appearance and blunted teeth, the gesture was 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, at least a little, 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 shinobi, capable of escaping the watchful eye of Konoha's own ninja 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 desperate 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, his dark side annoyed. "You've been alone 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?"
Zetsu stared at him. "No." When he had worked for Kusagakure, both of those areas were necessary aspects of the plant-man'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'd 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 go unheeded by the blond.
Naruto frowned at him. "Well then, what can you teach me?"
"Botany?" Naruto echoed incredulously.
"The study of plants," answered 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 be either 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'd been reminded of two days into their routine. The man was interesting, that Naruto would freely admit, and his time spent with the former Kusa-nin so far had allowed him to pick 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 have been his imagination). Black Zetsu and White Zetsu – as the blond 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 matters. He'd 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', whereas when one side was expressing his own opinion, he would refer to himself as a singular entity. The disparity of what Zetsu agreed with himself on was amusing, to an extent, but also simultaneously head-pounding.
White Zetsu, who seemed to be the more laidback, curious, and – dare he say – playful side, had a tendency to find Naruto's confusion and frustration more humorous than anything else. The plant-man's dark half was serious, straightforward, and way too smart, possessing a sinister nature which reminded Naruto a little of the villagers' treatment towards him. The main difference, he supposed, 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 how little he knew about his surroundings, although he often 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 retained the information, but the blond bore through both because he finally had someone who was willing to pay him attention.
Every day when he met Zetsu at the training grounds, he was led to a different part of Konoha's surrounding foliage, where the plant-man would 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 him was on the first day of their lessons, and even then it had only been the briefest of contact from the white side.
Zetsu emerged from the ground as Naruto entered the training area. "Stand over there," he ordered, pointing at a spot opposite the training posts.
Naruto shrugged, confused by the change in routine, but did as he was told. Thanks to daily lessons and interactions with the man, he'd quickly gotten over his terror of Zetsu induced by their first meeting; he had little to fear now except Black Zetsu's somewhat short temper. And while some of the information the plant-man taught seemed unnecessary, he'd also yet to steer the blond wrong or sabotage his learning.
On a short stump in the area Zetsu had indicated was 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. "It's why the village isn't suspicious of your whereabouts, Naruto-kun."
Naruto cocked his head to the side, scratching at his temple. "You mean the Kawarimi?"
"There is a difference between substitute and substitution," Black Zetsu replied testily. "That's why the Kawarimi is more correctly known as a body replacement than a substitution."
"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 frustrating to not learn anything…substantial, especially in the way of new jutsu. Zetsu had some pretty cool techniques. "Why not?!" he demanded.
"Because you don't look like this!" snarled the older male. Naruto recoiled at his tone; despite Black Zetsu's shorter fuse than his more polite half, he'd never reacted with such vehemence before. "Our jutsu are unique to us, Naruto-kun," placated White Zetsu, "which is why you can't learn them."
Naruto nodded slowly, taking up his previous position with a mental note 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. After a minute, White Zetsu spoke up. "You're set to graduate tomorrow, right, Naruto-kun?" The blond's head bobbed 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 quality from what he owned. He didn't know where Zetsu got the throwing knives or needles, but they certainly looked nice. "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, his dark half snarkily finishing, "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…meh."
"You have clearly never heard of either Chiyo or Sasori of Sunagakure."
"Both were experts in poison, and Chiyo created several 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 shinobi learn how to assassinate from the shadows, something poison does easily. Experts dip weapons in their poisons to intoxicate their opponents. I personally preferred senbon when using manmade weapons."
Naruto looked both 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 – which required some experimentation, since handling senbon weren't reviewed as thoroughly at 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 apparent.
"You seem to have little talent for projectile weapons," Black Zetsu noted idly, collecting 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 felt panic grip him, thinking that he'd driven off his tutor with his words. Again, his mouth had chosen to speak before he could really think about what he was saying.
The plant-man reappeared next to him, and Naruto sighed with relief. Zetsu's arm flashed forward in a swift movement that the blond couldn't catch. His other arm – the black side's – came up and pointed towards the target; Naruto's head swiveled toward 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, a landed fish, 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. "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 his accomplishment; in the Academy, whenever he'd tried to prove his superiority over Sasuke in weapons' practice, he'd always failed 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 nailing the center still left something to be desired. At the end of the session, he helped Zetsu gather all the weaponry, dumped it in the cloth bundle, and stepped away to allow 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. You should practice your aim whenever you have the opportunity."
Naruto stared 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. From a distance. "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, expression impassive, 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. Too many thoughts were running through his mind, the conflict of different opinions crowding his ability to properly sort them out and think.
So he was seeking out Zetsu's counsel to try and straighten things out.
He'd made it to deep within the forest where he assumed his tutor 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. Naruto found it strange that his white side was completely blank: no eye, no nose, no mouth. He had little time to wonder about it 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. It was quite amusing to watch Naruto struggle against his bonds. He'd 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 Mizuki-sensei said 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-sensei 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-sensei told me that the Yondaime Hokage couldn't kill the Kyūbi, so instead he sealed it inside of me, that I'm a monster. 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.
Naruto's fragmented retelling of the story felt like it was missing some very important details, but Zetsu was smart enough to fill in the holes. The 'Old Man' was probably the Hokage, and there had been some sort of history lesson that ended with Naruto discovering he was the jailor of the Kyūbi. That was an interesting tidbit, but he could focus on it later. 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. Knowledge was not one of his key strengths (his grades reflected that), 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.
"Hmph, there is hope for you yet. Yes, you need to learn that trusting in others 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 train of thought. "…Why should I trust what you say then?"
Zetsu's dark laughter echoed around them. "Quite clever," he allowed. "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 we have been attempting to teach you. Our 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 didn't feel like a demon, whatever that implied. "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. We have invested time and effort into your tutelage thus far, and we will not abandon our 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 our 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. They 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. "Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Zetsu said nothing more, and Naruto knew that the conversation was over.
As he headed back to the village proper, he considered his tutor'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 the opinions of others didn't matter, Zetsu was probably the closest thing Naruto had to a friend (the Hokage and Iruka didn't really count; they were more like superiors), and what he thought of the blond mattered. In the 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 apparently 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 true, 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.