Are the events that play out exactly as they appear, or are they simply façades for a more hidden agenda?

-l-l-l-

Naruto scowled at the giant scorpion before them, briefly ruing his lack of any truly damaging, wide-scale attacks. Poisons were effective, but using them was a subtle art, and they certainly weren't capable of bringing down a beast the size of the arthropod facing them.

He spared a glance at Ino – who looked ready to avoid being struck at a moment's notice – before turning to Chōji. "It's all yours," he told the chubby boy.

The Akimichi nodded, his hands coming together in a special seal. "Baika no Jutsu," he said, and then his body size tripled.

Naruto watched as Chōji squared off against the scorpion, waiting for the creature to strike. Despite being Team 10's heavy-hitter, the rotund boy was still a relatively passive fighter, preferring to wait until conflict was instigated before engaging in combat. As he had started to take his training more seriously – the bandit attack had apparently opened his eyes to the dangers of the real world – Naruto and Ino had come to rely on his presence to handle those threats which their abilities were ill-suited against.

Granted, the blonde always tried to be prepared with something of his own, but the illusion of trust and teamwork was important. Asuma – and by extension, Jiraiya – seemed to like keeping a close eye on his activities, not to mention how his personality fluctuated and meshed with his peers.

As the scorpion's tail blurred forward, Chōji lifted his arms to protect his face, allowing the large stinger to deflect off his forearm bracers. Throughout the months, as Chōji had become more immersed and capable with his clan's techniques, he'd started adopting pieces of armor to supplement his bulk. With the additions, the rotund boy had increased both his offensive and defensive prowess, making him capable of stalling for time as his teammates worked their own maneuvers.

Chōji grabbed the scorpion's tail and began to rotate on the spot, lifting the arthropod off the ground and swinging it around. Naruto flipped slowly through seals as his teammate picked up speed, and when the Akimichi finally let the scorpion go, the blonde held out his hands palms-out. "Fūton: Reppūshō," he muttered, and a rush of wind burst forth from his palms. The Violent Wind Palm combined with Chōji's toss, sending the giant scorpion soaring into the distance.

With any luck, it would land on some unsuspecting Genin team and remove more opponents from the Chūnin Exams.

Suna's Chūnin Exams had so far been a somewhat tense affair. The Hidden Sand had decided to host as a gesture of good faith on the part of the new Kazekage, to show that the village had nothing to hide following its betrayal of its alliance with Konoha. Despite the pretense, it was clear that some animosity still existed amongst a number of Suna- and Konoha-nin. Fortunately, things had remained calm – the most Naruto could see was pointed glares that reminded him too much of his early life in Konoha – but Asuma had warned the trio of Genin to tread cautiously regardless.

The Chūnin Exams were notorious as an open battleground to settle grudges, the second round especially so.

They had been led and released into the Land of Wind's desert with the objective of surviving and finding their way back to Suna after three days. It was a test, Naruto supposed, of their fortitude and resourcefulness in a strange land…or at least a harsh one, since any Sand Genin should be well aware of what surviving in their home country entailed. Not to mention that it was a subtle way for Suna to eliminate foreign teams from the competition, if not just flat-out eliminate them.

If it hadn't been for Ino, they would've already been ambushed by Suna Genin. Twice.

Just as Chōji had become better versed in his clan's techniques, the blonde girl had also buckled down and improved upon her own specialties. Her status as a sensory shinobi had made her pivotal to Team 10's cohesiveness, capable of identifying threats before they arose and allowing them to formulate plans suited to the situation at hand. Ino's range still had its limitations, but it was leaps and bounds ahead of what most (if not all) Genin participating in the Chūnin Exams were capable of.

She walked over to Chōji as the boy shrunk back to his normal size, patting him on the shoulder and congratulating him on a job well done. Naruto nodded at him in a silent display of gratitude, one which Chōji accepted with a grin.

Over his tenure with Team 10, the blonde had grown close with his teammates…as close as he would allow himself, anyway. It was impossible to spend months working with people and not create some sort of attachment to them, especially when they weren't actively antagonistic towards him as Sasuke and Sakura had been.

But just because he'd grown comfortable around Ino, Chōji, and Shikamaru didn't mean that he'd become overly expressive. Team 10 – or Chōji and Shikamaru, anyway…Ino tended to be rather vocal about when she felt she deserved praise or gratitude – had learned to take his quiet appreciation of their deeds in stride. None of them had taken issue with his changed personality from the Academy days: Shikamaru liked him better now that he was 'less annoying', Chōji didn't really have a preference, and Ino seemed to like thinking that he was trying to be more cool (or more like Sasuke, a thought which still sickened Naruto).

Even Asuma had remained quiet on the subject, though the Jinchūriki thought that that might've been attributable to the older male not knowing his pre-Genin self. Regardless, the Jōnin liked to subtly try to steer the blonde away from what he thought was Naruto's committal to a career in ANBU, often recounting tales of missions with friends or his tenure as one of the prestigious Twelve Ninja Guardians.

If anything, such stories only further emphasized how impossible it was to escape the fate of being a tool, while simultaneously reinforcing Naruto's desire to break the tradition.

Still, he weathered the lectures with patience, if only because Asuma had plenty of knowledge to pass on. In fact, the blonde thought that Team 10's sensei focused a bit more on his training than that of the Ino-Shika-Chō trio's, probably, he theorized, because Asuma could actually teach Naruto some of his own techniques and fighting strategies; the original members of Team 10 learned most of what they needed from their families, placing Asuma in a role closer to a catalyst than a teacher.

The same wasn't true of Naruto, though, and the results showed. The fact that he could use wind ninjutsu – limited though it was for the time being – was a testament to his growth under Asuma.

It chafed a little that he still required a teacher to improve certain skills, but his improvements spoke for themselves, so he bit his tongue at the hypocrisy and just went with it. He had already accepted that it would take years to get to the point that he wanted, and it was better to take advantage of any situations that arose while he could to cut down that time as much as possible.

Naruto shielded his eyes from the sun and looked around, trying to spot a landmark to gauge their progress. When the vast expanse of sand was all that greeted his sight, he let out a sigh; they were approaching the evening of day one, and the Hidden Sand didn't seem any closer now than it had at the beginning of the second round. "C'mon," he suggested, turning to Ino and Chōji, "we should keep movin'." Both nodded in response, and the trio continued its trek north, in the direction Ino had sensed their guide leaving earlier. The sun was almost finished setting by the time they found a cave hollowed out of a small rock formation, several cacti growing outside its entrance like sentinels.

While his teammates took shelter in the cave, Naruto took out a kunai and channeled chakra along its length, producing a small blade capable of slicing through anything. He cut off the spines of several cacti as close to the skin as he could manage before slicing off the naked arms and a number of fruit-bearing tops. When he felt he had enough, he collected everything from the ground and walked into the cave, where Ino and Chōji were waiting in silence. "Here," he said, tossing them each some dragon fruit, "eat up."

"What's th' plan?" Chōji asked, biting into the violet-colored pitaya.

"Rest for a couple hours, then start traveling at night. Gets us outta the hottest part of the day," Naruto explained. "Unless you guys have a better idea."

Chōji shook his head. Ino muttered, "Finally a break."

"Yeah, you could probably use more beauty sleep, huh, Ino?" Naruto joked.

The kunoichi cracked her knuckles threateningly. "What?" she growled. "Care to repeat that, Naruto?"

He snickered to himself; part of the fun of having teammates was the fact that he knew just how to push specific buttons to elicit certain reactions. The teasing was one part personal amusement, one part strategy – if Asuma and Jiraiya thought he was integrating with his peers better, perhaps they would lessen their scrutiny of his actions and personality. Granted, it wasn't all a ruse – Ino's vanity was an easy and amusing topic to poke fun at – but if he could get extra benefits from their friendship, he wasn't going to complain. "You wouldn't hurt the guy takin' care of you, would you, Ino?"

Ino grumbled a little before reclining against the wall and biting into the dragon fruit rather viciously. "Watch yourself, Uzumaki," she warned. "Just because you got us all this doesn't mean that you can get away with pissing off a beautiful kunoichi like m— HEY, are you listening to me!?"

"Nope." He'd started tuning her out in an effort to recall what he knew about cacti.

After Jiraiya had announced that he would be entering Team 10 into the Chūnin Exams, Naruto had started researching the environment they would be heading in. Books on the Land of Wind's botany were a bit scarce in Konoha – especially considering the completely different climates – but he had gleaned enough information from what little there was (and Zetsu) to make sure his team could survive whatever Suna threw at them. For instance, most of the dragon fruit – more correctly known as pitaya – that grew atop cacti were edible without requiring any sort of additional work. Knowing that gave his team a source of sustenance beyond what they could carry that other teams might not have.

Still, it wasn't easy to absorb so much data. Studying was still an annoying task, though Naruto's hidden interest for botany – discovered and flourishing due to Zetsu's influence – gave his attention span some incentive to remain engaged in the subject. On the other hand, it was also one of the more probable reasons his exploration into human anatomy hadn't gone anywhere.

In that vein, the bodies of the bandits he'd taken had yielded no new data. He couldn't establish times-of-death for them, and since he wasn't a doctor or medic-nin, he was reluctant to dissect the bodies and (attempt to) perform autopsies. Not only was the idea a bit grotesque, but unlike with his study of plants, the blonde had no idea what to look for, no basis to compare the results to.

Disposing of the bodies after he'd determined he couldn't glean anything from them hadn't been difficult, though he shuddered a little at the memory.

Still, when it came to self-preservation, Naruto was willing to put in whatever effort he had to in order to increase his chance of survival. That was why he'd learned as much as he could about the Land of Wind.

He unrolled one of his scrolls on the rocky floor and placed his palm upon it, channeling chakra into it. A number of his mahogany jars appeared from within, and Naruto started picking them up and examining them with a critical eye. "What're you doin'?" Chōji asked, peering at the collection of jars from over the blonde's shoulder; apparently Naruto's activities had gotten the chubby boy curious enough to walk over.

"Makin' sure we don't die," he answered, shooting a quick look at Ino, as if daring her to comment. The platinum blonde huffed, though she didn't say anything.

Behind him, Chōji tilted his head in curiosity. "How?"

"Well, cacti survive in the desert because they can store lotsa water, right?" At his teammate's hesitant nod, he continued, "And we don't wanna use up all our water too quickly either, right? So I figured that if we could draw water from cacti, then we'd make our resources last longer."

When he didn't continue, Ino pointed to his jars, prompting testily, "So what's all that for?"

Naruto lifted up another jar, uncorked it, sniffed the contents, then put it back down. He'd stopped labeling some of his jars on the off-chance they fell into the wrong hands, and figuring out what contained what took a little bit of sleuthing. A frown marred his features; Ino was a good friend most of the time, but she had little appreciation for some of the complexities associated with Naruto's art – probably because she'd been an unwilling test subject of his poison – and her patience with some of his antics was a bit limited. "Mm…it's not that simple."

Truthfully, the entire concept was a bit above Naruto's head; it involved scientific babble that required a deeper background in biology and botany than the blonde possessed, given that most of his studies focused on medicinal and poisonous properties of plants. The basics, however, seemed to boil down to cacti having stores of water in what Naruto thought of as the pulpy mass of their insides, though it was difficult for humans to access and tasted quite poor.

So, with a little bit of (reluctant) assistance from Zetsu, he'd come up with a mixture that could remove the cause of the bad taste, after figuring out a way to get the water out of the cacti.

"Ah," he commented, sniffing another jar, "found it." Grabbing one of the cactus pieces, he saturated his chakra into the white pulp, using the same method he used to seed the ground for the Attack Prevention Technique. Then, when he felt he'd put in enough, he pulled on his chakra, causing water to seep out of the pulp with it. By the time he was done, the cactus piece was serving as a makeshift bowl, the chakra he'd placed in the pulp forming a film similar to how he'd tried capturing the steam from his breakfast months before. "Here," he offered, tipping a pinch of the jar's contents into the liquid and handing it to Chōji, "try it."

Naruto kept his expression neutral as the other Genin took the proffered item and drank from it. Chōji was far too trusting. Granted, he hadn't added anything harmful to the water (he hoped), but if someone offered him something he'd watched that person tamper with, there was no way he'd do as his teammate had just done. Ino and Shikamaru were a bit shrewder, but neither were as paranoid as Naruto. Knowing that people were actively watching him certainly didn't help.

Chōji smacked his lips together. "Mmm, that's good. Thanks, Naruto!"

The blonde nodded his acceptance of his teammate's gratitude, performing the same trick on another cactus piece and holding it out to Ino. She stood up and grabbed it from him, expression relaxing as she sipped the liquid. Then she sniffed, commenting wryly, "You're such a good housewife," before resituating herself on the cave's floor.

Naruto ducked his head to hide his growing smirk. That was Ino's way of admitting that she was grateful for his efforts without actually conceding that she'd been wrong. The platinum blonde had a strong sense of pride, and even their months of friendship – almost a year, actually, now that he thought about it – hadn't quite tempered the fact that she didn't like it when he was right…especially around other people.

Chōji patted him on the back in a consoling gesture before going to lie down. Naruto silently continued his work, sipping slowly from his own hollowed-out cactus. He stared at his reflection in the water, eyebrows drawing together in thought. One more test, he thought, not even considering that they wouldn't pass the second exam. Throw your best at me, Suna.

-l-l-l-

"Nice night. Bit cold for my tastes, but, ya know, to each his own…I guess."

"…You are brave to confront me in my own territory."

Naruto shrugged, silently thinking that bravery was not the term he would use to describe what he was doing. The brave were generally revered as heroes, and the blonde wanted to be anything but a hero.

Heroes were expected to do great things and died young as a result; Naruto wanted to remain as unassuming as possible to increase his lifespan.

A stream of sand shot out of the gourd on Gaara's back and rushed towards Naruto. He quickly pulled out his twin senbon and channeled wind chakra through the metal, slashing through the incoming silica. The sand dispersed into a cloud of particles that remained floating around him for several moments before returning to the Suna-nin's gourd. Naruto leveled his fellow Jinchūriki with a wary look, which, as the redhead was staring at the moon and not him, went unseen. "Didn't think you'd wanna attack me here."

"Testing your progress," Gaara intoned, "to see if complying with your wish was a mistake. Rest assured, when we truly fight, it will be a clash of monsters."

"And you'd cause an international crisis," Naruto pointed out. Killing a participant of the Chūnin Exams while not during the tests – especially since the two people involved were Jinchūriki – would surely be cause for war…though factions in both the Hidden Sand and Hidden Leaf seemed to be itching for a reason to fight anyway. Not that any of that would stop Gaara from doing as he wanted. "Haven't seen you in the Chūnin Exams."

"I am ineligible."

"Oh." That was surprising. "Good job?"

Dead teal eyes turned to him. "You presume that I was promoted based on my qualifications. It was done out of fear…" His gaze adopted a hint of the madness that Naruto had been privy to during the Konoha Chūnin Exams. "My power is unquestionable, and Suna is in dire need of every scrap of power it can manage…the Kazekage will do whatever it takes to ensure Suna's survival, even if that means promoting a demon. Keeping me out of the village on prolonged missions also allows the other villagers to retain some peace of mind, even if it is a façade."

Well, Naruto supposed, whatever keeps him outta my way. The fact that he didn't have to deal with his fellow Jinchūriki during the Chūnin Exams was a blessing, the underlying cause notwithstanding.

"Why did you seek me out?"

"Hm?"

"You fear me," Gaara stated, "which is why you took precautions against me in the Chūnin Exams. Your fear is understandable…your presence here is not."

Naruto didn't even bother denying the redhead's claim. "Ah, right. I've got some info for you about a group called Akatsuki."

"…And this should concern me?"

"Yeah, ya see…"

"Hello, Naruto-kun!"

Naruto jumped, startled at the intrusion during his collection of fresh plants. "Zetsu! You scared the crap outta me! Where've you been? You've been gone almost four months!"

"Perhaps you should learn to take better stock of your surroundings, then," Black Zetsu sneered. "And we were on vacation/collecting info!" both halves answered. There was a moment of silence where Naruto watched the plant-man's normal eye shift to glance at his darker side, as if each half was trying to stare down the other. "Why did you tell him that? He doesn't need to know how we spend our time. But he knew we were out helping him, it's only fair that he learns what we were up to. If he wasn't so inept, he wouldn't have required any assistance in the first place."

"Uh…standin' right here…"

Yellow eyes gazed at Naruto unblinkingly. "I can see that. You should stop being mean to Naruto-kun and tell him what we found. Hmph, I suppose it would be a waste not to…

"Akatsuki is a mercenary group comprised of nukenin," Black Zetsu began, and as the former Kusa-nin spoke, Naruto focused intently on his words, knowing that the information his tutor had gotten was vital to his survival. "Its services appear typical for shinobi of a Hidden Village, though dabbling more in combat and assassination than espionage and other mundane tasks. A bunch of different people are part of it," White Zetsu added. Black Zetsu made a noise of discontent, though he didn't interrupt. "And they traveled in pairs most of the time, but we don't know how many of them there are."

Most of the time? Naruto wondered. He didn't voice the question aloud, instead asking about a more pressing concern. "If Akatsuki is a mercenary group, how come it's after me?"

"We don't know," Black Zetsu admitted, "but they're not just after you," White Zetsu piped in with inappropriate cheer. "One of their members invaded Takigakure and attacked what we can only assume was the Nanabi Jinchūriki. To face down a shinobi who accessed such potent, demonic chakra…I admit to being impressed with the caliber of these Akatsuki shinobi." White Zetsu giggled in amusement. "Like blue is a natural hair color…"

Naruto didn't bother pointing out that Zetsu's green hair wasn't exactly normal either; nothing about the plant-man was commonplace. "What else?"

Zetsu shrugged. "We don't know anything else. Akatsuki operates quite covertly, despite its advertised services. For obvious reasons, the Hidden Villages prefer not to bring attention to either the hiring of or invasions by outside forces. Sorry, Naruto-kun. Don't apologize to him. We did more than was necessary. But he might die because we couldn't figure out what Akatsuki wanted, and then all this time would've been a waste!"

The plant-man's darker side was silent at that, and Naruto repressed his amusement at White Zetsu's victory. Wait…was that an insult? He shook his head of the thought, knowing that trying to work through the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Zetsu's words was more likely to create questions than answer them. "Well, thanks for the info. Oh," he continued, reaching into one of his pouches and coming out with a scroll as a thought occurred to him, "I've got somethin' for you."

With a quick application of chakra, the bodies of the bandits he'd tried studying appeared. White Zetsu's mouth curved upward in delight. "Naruto-kun, you shouldn't have!"

He scratched the back of his head in discomfort. "Yeah, well…there ya go." Truthfully, he hadn't yet figured out a good way to dispose of the bodies without either arousing suspicion or losing the scroll in the process, and apparently the scroll kept its sealed items in some sort of stasis that prevented decay and decomposition. Edging the scroll out from under the bodies, he rolled it up, ignoring the gleam of…something…in Zetsu's eye. "I'm just gonna…go now."

The sound of Zetsu devouring the bandits' bodies followed him as he left the forest, echoing horribly in his mind.

Gaara didn't react as he relayed the information Zetsu had collected on Akatsuki, leaving out the plant-man's cannibalism and snarky insults. "So…" stated the redhead at length, "you wanted to warn me about an organization collecting the Jinchūriki. …Why?" he asked at Naruto's nod.

The blonde shrugged. "Felt like it. Maybe you're super strong or whatever, but I don't think you should be ambushed like that Taki Jinchūriki."

Sand swirled around the Suna-nin in a thin stream. "I cannot be ambushed," Gaara intoned matter-of-factly. "Your warning is unneeded. Now leave."

Knowing that it was unwise to press his luck with Gaara's temperament – and done delivering his message – the blonde left the rooftop silently, jumping to the street below and wandering back to the hotel with hands laced behind his head.

If Akatsuki was after the Jinchūriki – all the Jinchūriki – Naruto certainly had no intention of going down without a fight. And if manipulating his fellow demon container into doing his dirty work for him saved him some effort…well, he had no compunctions about doing so. Gaara would be targeted at some point, and with the redhead's insatiable thirst for conflict and murder, the challenge that Akatsuki would pose would (hopefully) lure the redhead into (hopefully) taking care of the mercenary group before it became Naruto's problem.

It was manipulative as hell, it hinged on a lot of hypotheticals, and Gaara was rather resistant to serve as Naruto's (unknowing) tool, but the blonde would try whatever method he could to get the Ichibi Jinchūriki to work for his cause.

A clone stepped out from the shadows and deposited a ceramic jar into the real blonde's hand before dispersing in a puff of smoke. Naruto tossed the weapon up and caught it, thinking about how Gaara's idea of being ambushed was far too narrow.

He placed the jar containing a potent sleeping agent back in its pouch and continued walking back to the hotel. Gaara was a useful pawn, but if the redhead didn't think he could be ambushed – and having a shadow clone utilizing the Shinra Banshō beneath the Suna-nin on the chance he needed to be subdued was definitely an ambush – he wouldn't be nearly as much of an asset as Naruto hoped.

Ah well, he figured, not like I should rely on him anyway.

-l-l-l-

"Congratulations again on making it to the third stage of the Chūnin Exams. Here you will have the opportunity to showcase your skills to the future clients of your villages."

Addressing them was the new Kazekage – Gaara's father's successor, Naruto remembered – a woman with pupil-less brown eyes and forest green hair tied up in a bun; a pair of (what the blonde could only assume was dyed) orange tresses framed her angular face. Her serious expression was matched only by the monotone in which she spoke, and Naruto wondered whether she was just acting that way or if her personality truly was as flat and boring as her voice.

"During the course of these exams, the qualities expected of a Chūnin have been tested," continued the Kazekage. "Strategizing and leadership, survival in a foreign environment…teamwork. To simulate combat in the field, the final exam will test the abilities of your team to neutralize an opposing team. Sometimes, as Chūnin, you will have to make life-and-death decisions between either saving your teammates or completing a mission." She paused for effect, allowing the ominous meaning of the statement to linger. "As such, whoever remains conscious from the winning team will be promoted."

So even if your team wins, you can still lose if you're not awake, huh? And if you don't work together to take down all the enemies, you might get outnumbered… Another test promoting both teamwork and individualism…well, Naruto was used to those.

"Now, the first match will now commence," the Kazekage announced. "Team 10 from Konohagakure and Team 2 from Takigakure, remain in the arena; everyone else should exit towards the surveying balcony."

Naruto cracked his knuckles as everyone but the two teams left. The arena was a circular construct with a floor composed of square tiles and curved earthen walls; there was no dirt, no grass, no trees, not even a trace of the sand that starkly defined almost the entirety of the Land of Wind. They were being tested on pure combat potential, relying solely upon the skills they had and not how effectively they could use the terrain.

It wasn't the type of fight Naruto particularly excelled in, given that the fights he preferred were normally over before the opponent knew he was there, but he also had enough tricks up his sleeve to feel confident in Team 10's victory.

He stretched his arms in the air, turning his head to the right to glance at Ino and Chōji and purposefully blinking once when they caught his gaze. Neither responded, but the blonde could tell by the way they shifted just slightly that they'd received the message.

The proctor – a man Naruto vaguely recognized as the tall Suna-nin who had fought the proctor back in Konoha's Chūnin Exams – glanced dispassionately at both teams. "Begin," he said, jumping away to give them space to fight.

Two of the Taki-nin flipped through seals, producing two jets of water that split the members of Team 10 apart from each other. The apparent leader of the Waterfall Genin used a similar technique to drag moisture from the air, forming a deep blue sword with jagged edges, which he immediately slashed at Naruto with.

The blonde's hands dipped into his pouch, withdrawing his senbon and crossing them together to counter the attack. He took the momentary stalemate to glance over at Ino and Chōji.

Both of his teammates seemed to be holding their own in combat, despite the intentions of the opposing team to take them out individually. It was smart of the Taki-nin to separate them – Team 10, after all, was a group focused heavily on teamwork – even more so considering the fact that neither Chōji nor Ino looked particularly suited to being shinobi.

It was a common misconception, but Naruto was confident that Ino and Chōji could either hold their own until he took his opponent out or end their battles by their own merit.

There was no noise as his senbon continued to clash with the Taki-nin's solidified water sword; after so much practice against Tenten and Asuma in which metal resounded against metal, the lack of any sound was almost disappointing. Sparring constantly with Asuma and Tenten gave him a fair idea of how to defend against the Waterfall Genin…

"Takigakure Ryū: Chō Mizukiri no Yaiba!"

More water condensed along the sword, increasing the blade's length as the Taki-nin thrust it at him. The extended reach surprised Naruto from his reverie, nullifying his blocking stance and forcing him to dive to the side to avoid getting skewered. It still sliced through his right shoulder, eliciting a hiss from him as he came to a kneeling position on the tile. Stupid! Pay attention!

Looking for a momentary distraction, he tossed his twin senbon at the Taki-nin and used the opportunity to reach for one of his ceramic jars. Slamming it on the ground a little in front of him, the Jinchūriki used chakra to propel himself into the air, forming seals as he did so. Kaze Nagare no Jutsu, he thought, cheeks puffing out before expelling a stream of wind at his previous location.

White manchineel gas exploded out of the broken jar and was immediately caught up in the blonde's Wind Stream Technique, settling like a cloud over the Taki-nin; he hollered in pain as the blinding vapor took effect. Through the white haze, Naruto could make out his opponent forming hasty seals. A moment later, a slight drizzle rained upon the cloud, a strategy the blonde assumed was an effort to wash out the gas.

He shook his head in an almost sympathetic gesture. Mixing water and the manchineel gas was like trying to douse fire with oil – it was guaranteed to exacerbate rather than cure the problem.

Sure enough, the Taki-nin's yells soon escalated in tandem with a mixture of flailing and scratching. Naruto decided to put the boy out of his misery, withdrawing a handful of senbon laced with knockout poison and hurling them into the dissipating gas cloud. In a matter of seconds, the Genin's prone form could be seen lying on the ground, angry red splotches covering his body. Naruto let out a small noise of approval, pleased to see the fruit of his labors.

Then he turned to check out his teammates' progress.

Chōji seemed to be holding his own, using his Partial Multi-Size Technique to withstand and absorb most of his adversary's attacks. A short distance from them, Ino's lithe body was dancing around the third Taki-nin, dodging everything with her Musō-Battō-Ryū, using kunai to try to land a more debilitating blow.

Naruto sighed to himself, debating what to do. They still needed to knock out the remaining two Taki-nin in order to pass the test, but the experience of fighting other shinobi – a rather uncommon occurrence on the missions they'd performed over the past several months – would be good for Ino and Chōji to better understand their individual strengths and weaknesses against supposed equals. And they should be able to fend for themselves without relying on him or Shikamaru (just in case), just as he had trained to depend on his own skills.

On the other hand, Ino wasn't a combat-oriented shinobi, and she would have no problem giving him grief for leaving her to her own devices.

Walking over to the felled Taki-nin and picking up his dropped senbon, he pocketed them and then grabbed two smaller ones, moving closer to where his fellow blonde was dodging her opponent. He studied their rhythm for several moments before releasing one needle after the other as practice with Tenten had drilled into his head. Both struck home, one burying itself in his calf, the other in his neck. The Genin stumbled briefly, affected by the muscle-paralyzing toxin tipping the senbon, and Ino took the moment to form the specialized seal of her clan. Her consciousness shot into his, and after another couple seconds, the Taki-nin slumped to the ground, forced into unconsciousness.

The polite applause of the crowd caught Naruto's attention, and he glanced at Chōji to find the Akimichi's opponent out cold. We won, he thought, allowing himself a small smile.

Ino stalked up to him. "I didn't need your help," she huffed. "I had that guy exactly where I wanted him right before you interfered."

"Shouldn't you just be glad we won?"

"Duh," she sniffed, "but it's the principle of the thing. I'm not some damsel in distress that needs rescuing."

Naruto sighed, causing Chōji to shoot him a sympathetic look. Yelled at for helpin', prob'ly woulda gotten yelled at for not helpin'…there's just no winning with her. Shikamaru's right, women are troublesome.

"The winners are Akimichi Chōji, Uzumaki Naruto, and Yamanaka Ino of Konohagakure," stated the proctor. "Now remove yourselves from the field so we can move on to the next match." They all complied, Chōji withdrawing a bag of chips hidden somewhere on his person as they did so.

When they were hidden from the audience's view, Ino turned to her fellow blonde and held out her hand expectantly. After a reluctant pause, Naruto silently unclasped his jar of healing salve and pulled out a roll of bandages from his pouch, handing them both over to his teammate. "Shirt," she demanded, and he complied by wiggling out of the olive-colored garment, then peeling the grey undershirt over his head. Ino released an exasperated sound. "You're so reckless," she told him, rubbing salve over the cut on his shoulder.

"He caught me by surprise."

This time, Ino scoffed. "Can't even handle yourself and you think we need your help," she muttered.

"I can handle myself just fine…I could do this myself, too," he added pointedly.

"Yeah, well, tough," she retorted, wrapping bandages around the wound. "Maybe next time."

Naruto wasn't sure whether to be amused or exasperated; every time he got injured in practice or combat, Ino would always insist on fixing him up, and she'd always say that. It was, he'd theorized, her way of showing gratitude to him, since it was a rare occasion when she'd express such sentiment in words.

Oh well, he thought, trying not to dwell on Ino's peculiarities and instead choosing to revel in his pending promotion. He slid his shirts back on and took the proffered medical items from Ino, walking side-by-side with her up to the viewing balcony. I'm makin' progress.

-l-l-l-

Naruto tossed his new weapon into the air, watched it with a careful eye, and caught it on its downward path. He frowned – despite grabbing the handle, its position felt awkward in his hand.

In addition to passing on a set of earrings to Chōji and Ino (as was tradition), Asuma had presented Naruto with a pair of hunting knives as a gift for making Chūnin. The hunting knives, he'd explained, were better than the blonde's senbon or kunai for utilizing wind chakra in combat, and the fighting style they utilized was a bit closer to the one Asuma used than trying to reinvent a style based on how Haku had fought in the Land of Waves. Naruto had initially tried to reject the gift, but Asuma had insisted that it was tradition for a teacher to give his students gifts whenever they were promoted to Chūnin, so he'd stopped protesting. Besides, Asuma had given him something pretty useful…it would've been a mistake not to make use of the knives.

Though simple, the blades possessed a sort of elegance that Naruto could appreciate. Eighteen inches from tip to hilt, the foot-long blade was sleek steel with a slight curve in the last few inches that provided a perfect edge for poison. The handle was smooth mahogany, long enough for the blonde to grow into the knives as he went through adolescence.

Finding a balance was weird – they were forged a little differently from kunai, and way differently from senbon – but the newly-minted Chūnin felt that he'd be able to work out the kinks soon enough. Tenten, at least, would be pleased to try and help him fully understand the new weapons.

He flipped his grip on the weapon, turned, and threw it at a tree ten feet away.

"Naruto-kun, you almost killed us!"

The Jinchūriki blinked as his tutor melded out of the tree his knife was sticking out of. "Uh, sorry, Zetsu, didn't see you there. I didn't mean it."

"So you say," Black Zetsu remarked at the same time White Zetsu said, "Aw, it's okay then, Naruto-kun. No, it's not okay," Black Zetsu corrected testily. "I do not wish to die because of his incompetence."

"Well, I just made Chūnin," Naruto told him, and even as he tried to withhold the boasting lilt in his voice, he knew he failed, "so I guess I'm not that incompetent, huh?"

There was a moment of silence before the plant-man's darker half retorted, "After everything we have told you, your pride in this meaningless accomplishment only betrays exactly how mindless you truly are. But congrats on your promotion, Naruto-kun," White Zetsu added, and his voice was so sincere that Naruto almost thought he meant it.

The blonde shook his head. "No no no no, you don't get it. Now I'm one step closer to my goal!"

"…I don't get it. The feeling is mutual."

"Okay, well, check it out…" began the teen before launching into an explanation of his revelation during Konoha's Chūnin Exams, the conclusion he'd come to about his own skills, and the goal he'd set for himself. To his credit, Zetsu remained silent throughout the entire diatribe, listening to his pupil's thought process as the blonde had done with him countless times before. When he was done, Naruto asked, "So, whaddya think? Not bad, huh?"

After a beat, the dark sound that he'd come to associate with Black Zetsu chuckling could be clearly heard. "Clever," admitted the plant-man's darker side, "more so than I expected. To twist the shinobi system's guidelines to suit your own ideology…there is hope for you yet. Now everything makes sense," White Zetsu added cheerfully. "So, Naruto-kun, what's your next move?"

The blonde shrugged. "Do what I've been doin', I guess. Just gotta get better with everything and take advantage of the right training opportunities when they happen." He sighed. "It'll take a while, but eventually everything'll pay off." I hope.

"Sounds like a plan. Albeit a half-assed one. We'll see you around, then!"

"Wait, what?" he protested. "Where're you goin'?"

Zetsu's yellow eye fixated on him. "Adventuring! Since you know what you're doing, we're gonna go have some fun. Fear not, we shall return to check on your progress…there are many more lessons for you to stumble through, and we wouldn't want to miss bearing witness to them."

The plant-man's mixed laughter – both sadistically and honestly amused – echoed around him as the former Kusa-nin melded back into Konoha's foliage, disappearing to who-knew where. Naruto was almost sad to see Zetsu go – despite his twisted psychology, the plant-man gave solid direction and guidance whenever he was asked, and not having him around to bounce ideas off of was a little lonely.

Then again, he was a Chūnin now…perhaps it was time to try and figure out more on his own than leaning on Zetsu as a crutch. If the plant-man was manipulating him – and he had yet to figure out if that was true – then the separation from his tutor would allow him to explore possibilities without being steered awry by any of Zetsu's personal biases, limited as they were.

Opportunities abounded…all he had to do was wait for them to appear.

-l-l-l-

Author's Note: If you couldn't tell, I made Pakura the Kazekage (again) because I don't really know of any Suna character (barring maybe Chiyo) who can fulfill the role adequately. The idea for hunting knives (Bowie knives) came from an anonymous reviewer, so thank you.

Also, my personal life is a bit…hectic, and as such, I can no longer promise a consistent update schedule. Sorry. Updates will be sporadic, but they'll continue to come. Also, if you like my writing and haven't yet read it, I updated The Line with an epilogue; read this, read that, let me know what you think.