When freedom lies just ahead, how do you shake off the nooses that threaten to pull you back into your prison?


"So what's changed?"

Naruto shot Ino a proud grin, hands laced behind his head as he walked backwards through the lamp-lit streets. "I made Jōnin! Got to beat up Sasuke to do it, too."


He hummed a little in self-satisfaction. "Felt pretty good."

"I can only imagine."

"You're not upset, are you?"

"About what? You beating Sasuke?" She scoffed. "I haven't been interested in him for a long time now. Thought you would've figured that out already."

He shrugged. "Just checking."

"So, are you going to tell me where we're going?"


Truth be told, Naruto only had the vaguest of ideas as to what he was doing. Dating had been the furthest thing from his mind for a long time now, and trying to jump back into that mindset was difficult, to say the least.

His plan, if it could be called that, was to do something simple yet meaningful. Whether or not Ino appreciated it was entirely up in the air, but if nothing came of it, at least he could say he'd ventured out of his comfort zone and at least tried.

Ino rolled her eyes at him, though there was a slight quirk to her lips that belied her amusement. "Fine, be like that." Naruto grinned a little in response before turning around and continuing their walk, allowing a comfortable silence to fall between them.

Eventually they arrived at their normal training field. Naruto grabbed one of his sealing scrolls and released a blanket, two bento boxes, and chopsticks. Laying out the blanket, he gestured for Ino to take a seat and then followed her lead, passing a bento and utensils to her. "Not bad," she commented, swallowing a piece of tonkatsu.

"Can't take the credit this time. It's store-bought."

"But you know how to cook!"

"I fought Sasuke today," Naruto reiterated in a deadpan. "Didn't exactly have a lot of energy afterwards."

"Hmph. Well, next time I expect something homemade."

Yeah…next time… "You're so high-maintenance."

He received a punch to the arm for his sass. "Shut up! You can't tell a lady that!"

Naruto laughed at his companion's outrage before putting aside the rest of his bento and leaning back on the blanket, once more lacing his arms behind his head, this time to serve as a pillow. Ino raised an eyebrow at him. "Not hungry?"

"Eh." A pause, then, "Do you ever wonder what else is out there?"

Ino tossed him a tempura carrot, which he caught in his mouth with little effort. She put another piece of pork in her mouth and then laid down beside him. Thousands of stars winked down at them, each trying to outshine the others. "You mean space?"

He shrugged. "Space, the world…whatever. We only know so much about the things around us, ya know? What do you think we don't know?"

"A lot, I guess. But maybe we just have to wait and see until we find that stuff out. Don't you think that's what life's all about? Learning something new every day?"

Naruto smiled to himself. "Yeah, pretty much." It was, after all, the tenet that had kept him moving forward in a constant state of fluctuating confusion for the past five years, even with a solid goal always in the back of his head keeping him grounded.

Ino adjusted herself so that she was facing him, using her left hand to prop up her head. "So now that you're a Jōnin, what's next?"

"Mmm, keep training, keep gettin' stronger. There's always another hurdle."

"But making Jōnin was enough to start this? Not that I'm complaining, it's just…a weird goal."

"Oh yeah? And what're you shootin' for?"

Ino winked at him. "It's a secret."

Naruto huffed in response, practically pouting, before his blue eyes darted back to the night sky overhead, pointedly ignoring his date's playful smirk. "Being a Jōnin gives me confidence in my abilities," he confided solemnly. "Maybe it's not enough in the long run, but for now, it means that I'm ready for the next stage of my life."

"And what's that?"

He couldn't tell her, and he wouldn't just feed her some cock-and-bull story (as easy as that would have been), but he also couldn't be caught in a lie if he said nothing at all.

So instead of responding, the blond rolled over and kissed Ino. Unlike the last time he'd instigated romance, the tension he'd carried around on the mission with Tenten was absent, merely a slight flutter of nerves in his stomach.

It was almost funny how, in trying not to lie to her, all he did was imply false promises instead, and wasn't that really just the same thing?

Ino shot him a knowing look when there was once more space between them. "Oh really?"

Naruto shrugged, a somewhat cocky grin twisting his lips. He didn't trust himself to speak, unwilling to break whatever mood had fallen between them. The shorter blonde seemed to watch him for a long moment, as if judging him, and he once again wondered if the Yamanaka ever used her mind-manipulating techniques on him.

But then, if she really knew what went on in his head, there was no way their relationship, platonic or otherwise, would be even a fraction of what it currently was, was there?

Ino stood and offered him a hand. Grasping it, she helped lever him to his feet, and without letting go, began to lead him back through the village. Naruto didn't bother to ask where they were going; in revenge for his own stunt earlier, she'd likely not tell him.

His question was answered in short order when they arrived back at her home. Ino opened the door and spared him a backwards glance. "Might be a bit late, but do you want to come in?"

"You sure?"

She shot him a look not unlike the one he'd worn after kissing her. "Yeah."

Through the sliver of open door, he managed to spy a black trenchcoat hanging on a hook and little else; judging by the silence, no one else was home. "After you."


Naruto awoke early the next morning and blinked at the dull grey light filtering through the lavender window curtains. He sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes free of grit before glancing over; Ino was laying on her side facing away from him, the sheet trundled up to her neck.

Memories of the previous night flooded his mind at the sight of her blonde hair spilling over the pillows. It had been…nice, he reflected, a good way to mark his departure from Konoha. As much as he hated to admit it (and as nightmare-inducing as that conversation had been), Zetsu had been right – all things should be experienced at least once. Naruto couldn't really remember the last time he'd simply let himself go and just enjoyed the moment; maybe when he and Tenten had been in the Land of Hot Water, but even then there'd been a sense of urgency to their 'romance', a restriction put in place by their actual mission.

Here he'd been free to simply feel and do. No plans, no contingencies, no ulterior motives…just impulse.

To that end, he was grateful – though perhaps amazed was a better word, as he honestly wasn't sure how she'd been convinced to go so far – that she'd even be amenable to the idea. Ever since meeting Zetsu – and especially as he'd grown older and more jaded in his way of thinking – he'd noticed that finding meaning in things that actually appealed to his warped sense of philosophy had become progressively more difficult. To have partaken in something that was purely about the moment, without questioning the how or why or what…it had been a nice change of pace.

Blue eyes trailed over Ino's sleeping form once more. Out of all the people in Konoha, the Yamanaka was the one person he was most sad to leave behind. Despite his friendship with Tenten and camaraderie with both Shikamaru and Chōji, it was Ino he had originally chosen to befriend, and Ino who complemented him best. "I'll miss you, Ino," he admitted quietly, voice still coarse and thick with sleep. He wasn't worried about waking her; Ino was a notoriously deep sleeper, and constantly defended her habit by claiming that that was how she stayed so beautiful. As if to prove the point, she mumbled something incoherent and turned so that she was facing him, the sheet falling slightly to reveal her pale collarbone.

Emboldened by his confession, the blond continued talking, his voice gradually losing its sleepy gruffness and becoming soft. "I've learned a lot since meeting Zetsu…he has very specific opinions on, well, everything, I guess, but he also taught me how to think for myself. Heh…that was probably a mistake. I started actually paying attention to how people treated me, what they were sayin', how the world worked…

"The world's not as nice a place as Konoha wants us to believe. We're supposed to believe that protecting the Will of Fire and our comrades is the most important thing, but…it all seems so pointless, doesn't it? Why should I die for someone who doesn't even like me? Maybe if it was someone I liked…" he trailed off, briefly recalling the way he'd protected his bedmate from the attacking Oto-nin, but then shook his head to prevent the thought from gaining traction; he'd come this far, there was no point in deviating from his plan now. Firmly, almost as if to reassure himself, he continued, "People should be able to take care of themselves, and if not…maybe they deserve whatever they get."

Naruto paused and looked at the ceiling, as if hearing for the first time the words exiting his mouth. "Huh…that sounded like something Black Zetsu would say. It's weird that we became friends, isn't it, since we don't really believe in the same things? But maybe Konoha brainwashed you…kinda like Zetsu brainwashed me. Who knows where I'd be if he hadn't found me. Maybe we could've…"

He returned his gaze to Ino, pointedly ignoring once again the implications of what he was saying; there would likely always be a part of him that contradicted himself, simply because that's how Zetsu had taught him to think. "But I'm glad that we became friends. I think having you around kept me from becoming too dark…almost like a conscience. I could do what I thought was right, and not just blindly follow whatever I was told.

"And that's why I have to leave." He was whispering at this point, divulging a secret he'd only told two other people. "I've found my own path, and I need to follow it.

"I don't think you'll understand…actually, you'll probably be mad when you find out," he corrected, "but that's okay. Everything'll be okay," he murmured, as if to reassure himself of that fact. "So thanks…for everything…"

With those words lingering in the air, he slipped out of the bed and dressed quickly, finding himself perched on his friend's windowsill within a minute. "…And goodbye, Ino," he whispered, before jumping in the direction of his apartment.


It was around 6:30 in the morning when an ANBU came to retrieve Naruto from his home, informing the blond that his presence was required by the Hokage for a mission of extreme importance. The Jinchūriki merely nodded in understanding and, after the Black Ops member vanished, allowed a tight smile to stretch his visage.

His plan was in motion.

A mixture of apprehension and nervous excitement knotted in his belly as he packed for the journey ahead. When his sealing scrolls were filled and his arsenal stocked, he left his apartment and shut the door behind him, not even sparing it a backwards glance.

When he arrived at his teacher's office, Jiraiya was standing in front of the giant window that overlooked the Hidden Leaf, hands clasped behind his back and gaze aimed at the Hokage Monument. Naruto took a seat as the Sannin's secretary left, waiting for the man to speak. "Do you know Sabaku no Gaara?" he finally asked.

"Yeah, we uh…met in the Chūnin Exams," Naruto admitted. "Why?"

The white-haired man turned to look at him. "We just received a missive from Suna. He's gone rogue. Killed the sentries on duty who tried to stop him and just disappeared into the desert. The Kazekage wants our help in bringing him back."

"Why don't they bring him back themselves?"

"Fear, for one," Jiraiya replied. "From everything I've heard, most of Suna is still scared of him from his younger days, and his growth since then hasn't done anything to quell that fear. And second…do you remember what I told you about Jinchūriki?"

"In any of the other villages, you'd have been raised as a weapon and little more."

The blond nodded. "Yeah…"

Jiraiya returned his gaze to the village sprawled out below him. "You've never seen a Jinchūriki in action, but they're…terrifying. Especially if they have access to the Bijū inside them. I've seen platoons of elite shinobi go up against them and fall like Genin. It takes someone with Kage-level abilities to stand up to a Jinchūriki, and even that's not a sure thing depending on the Jinchūriki's skills; I don't know about the current Kazekage, but I probably could. Maybe Tsunade, if she ever decided to get back onto the battlefield.

"But aside from an S-class shinobi, the only thing that can stand up to a Jinchūriki is another Jinchūriki." He turned away from the window and finally took a seat in his chair, and in the moments it took him to do that, Naruto wondered (but didn't ask) when Jiraiya had witnessed a Jinchūriki fight. "That's why I need you to go out, find Gaara, and bring him back to Suna, alive." Jiraiya let out a long breath and reluctantly said, "I'm not gonna lie, Naruto, this is extremely dangerous, and I'd go myself if I could, but Konoha still needs its Hokage, and I can't go traipsing all about the Land of Wind or wherever the hell in the Elemental Nations Gaara is now on such short notice. Neither can the Kazekage, which is why she asked for our help. And unfortunately, since my first choice is currently unavailable, you're the only one I trust to stand a chance."

First choice? Naruto pondered.

"Welcome to your first S-rank mission as a Jōnin, kid. And since I don't trust that things won't get rough, you're on your own; there's no telling how he'll react when you run into him, but I'm betting it won't be good." He gave the blond a strained smirk. "Not exactly the mission I would have picked to throw you into the fire with, but beggars can't be choosers. As it is, Gaara has at least a 12-hour lead on you, and it'll take two days to reach the border of the Land of Wind, so pack whatever else you need and head out ASAP. And Naruto," he added as his student headed for the door, "…good luck, and be safe."

Naruto sketched a hasty bow to his teacher before turning away, the shadow of a grin flitting across his lips that reflected the tumultuous mixture of excitement and anxiety still boiling in his gut. "Will do, Jiraiya-sensei."


The Land of Wind lay before him in all its expansive glory, an endless plain of golden-yellow. It was a barren sea of sand, with only the sporadic saguaro standing tall in the distance, their rigid forms appearing wavy and distorted in the heat. Wind carried floating silica particles past his field of vision, making the desert appear hazy and even more unwelcoming.

Even using the Shinra Banshō and Midori Shiryoku within the well-vegetated Lands of Fire and Rivers to travel quickly and quietly, it had still taken 18 hours to reach the Land of Wind's border. Now that he'd arrived at his destination, though, he was starting to wonder if carrying through with his end of the bargain was really the best idea.

It had been a long time since he'd proposed his young, almost haphazard, plan to Gaara, and at the time, it had been a desperate (likely to be rejected) effort to keep the status quo. But the Sand Jinchūriki had agreed to his terms – belatedly, and in the middle of an invasion, though he supposed beggars couldn't be choosers – and in return, his own freedom had been aided by the redhead's defection.

His main hesitance lay in the fact that Gaara – known for his manipulation of sand – was surrounded by desert, where plant life was minimal and the Attack Prevention Technique was more likely to get him killed than protect him if he overused it.

Then again, he'd beaten Sasuke while handicapped…who was to say he couldn't do it again?

"Why's he just standing there? Scared, probably."

Naruto sighed, an exhausted, almost exasperated sound. "Zetsu. Well, I appreciate the favor, at least."

"You should," Black Zetsu growled. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get to Suna for us? There are so little plants," White Zetsu complained. "And your friend is so mean! He tried to kill us!"

"Not my friend," the blond pointed out tiredly, "but yeah, I get it." Been there, done that. "Think I should keep my end of the deal?"

"Does it matter what our answer is?"

"No," came the wry response, "just curious."

"Honor is a rare trait among shinobi. That goes doubly so for nukenin. It really just depends on what kinda person you wanna be."

What kind of person I wanna be…like that's not a loaded statement. As if he hadn't already made that decision when he put his plan into motion and left Konoha.

But that was arguably the past, a life he was leaving behind, even if it had only truly culminated two days ago. He'd put in time and energy to get to this point, and now that he'd reached it, he could define himself by a new chapter. Now was finally the time to determine who he wanted to be, to begin living the life of a person free of everyone else's demands.

He let out a sigh of resignation, though it was offset by a self-satisfied, almost amused smirk. "Let's do this."

White Zetsu's half-mouth seemed to mirror his own expression. "Your 'friend' is five miles northwest of here. He's really patient."

Gaara had been waiting for this moment for almost five years, yet Naruto doubted anyone would use the word 'patient' to describe the redhead. Eagerness to prove himself – to verify his existence, as he'd phrased it during the Chūnin Exams – was the more likely prevailing characteristic. Besides, if he flaked, the Suna-nin would likely try to hunt him down, and the blond wanted to enjoy his newfound freedom. "Thanks, Zetsu." He tossed his tutor a haphazard salute. "Wish me luck."

"Good luck!" White Zetsu offered at the same time his darker half stated, "If you're as skilled as you think you are, you won't need luck."

Naruto barely heard the plant-man's parting shot; he was already heading out in the direction Zetsu had told him. Behind him, the former Kusa-nin melded back into the thinning foliage of the Land of Rivers, seeking a system of roots that spread under the desert.

He didn't want to miss what was about to happen.

Fortunately for Naruto, with the right heading and the desert being so featureless, finding Gaara was child's play. His fellow Jinchūriki stood like a sentinel in the baking afternoon heat, arms crossed and red hair shuffling in the breeze. "…You came."

"I said I would."

"Given your cautious nature, I had doubts."

With his natural prudence and avoidance of dangerous scenarios, Naruto couldn't fault him for thinking that. Still, there was no point in letting the redhead know how close he'd been to reneging on their arrangement. "I don't disappoint."

Emotionless teal eyes continued to bore into blue. "We shall see." Then he stretched out his hands and the surrounding sand rose into the air.

Naruto had a brief moment to lament his decision before the golden granules cascaded upon him. He instinctively melded through the desert and burrowed away as the wave converged on his location. "Don't think you can hide from me, Uzumaki Naruto!" Gaara threatened, voice's pitch rising from its usual monotone. "In this land, I know your every move! Sabaku Taisō!"

The blond finished surfacing from the earth – he'd started when the other Jinchūriki had said there was no hiding, not trusting that to be a bluff – just in time for the sand beneath his feet to shift. He felt himself drop several inches as all the sand in a 500-foot radius compressed, compacting loose grains into a solid footing. Damn…

If he'd been underground when the Sand Waterfall Imperial Funeral activated, the compaction likely would have killed him.

As he'd thought, the Shinra Banshō was out, more of a hindrance than an ally; that he'd used it once safely was a miracle in of itself. The earth he was surrounded by – if it could be called that – was sand and not soil, meaning that his Doton techniques would be nearly ineffective, and the lack of plant life was unhelpful, even if he had a last ditch workaround.

Yep, he thought morbidly, just like fighting Sasuke. Albeit a Sasuke with far less sanity.

Though this time, he had at least one distinct advantage…one his opponent also shared and had no qualms about using, if his warped features were anything to go by.

Sand had crawled up Gaara's body, transfiguring his entire right side into a beige-colored something that was part-animal, part-demon. Drool was leaking from his distended mouth, making the Suna-nin appear even more psychotic than normal. Naruto hastily lobbed a jar of sleeping gas at the other shinobi, but a massive sand arm tipped with black claws extended out from Gaara's right side, closing around the jar and crushing it before it even got close to the redhead.

Well…wish I could say I was surprised…

He withdrew a small scroll from his pocket, offering up silent gratitude to Tenten as he unraveled it and applied chakra. A dozen more jars burst forth, angling towards the other Jinchūriki. The demonic arm came up again, but this time Gaara growled, "Rendan Suna Shigure," and large blobs of sand shot out from the palm, impacting the projectiles and shattering them. Naruto dodged the opposing projectiles, eyes narrowed as pale yellow gas diffused across the battlefield, dissipating into the wind. "Do not take me for a fool, Naruto! I won't fall for the same trick twice!"

Now he even sounds like Sasuke, scowled the blond as Gaara's deformed mouth opened wide.

"Fūton: Mugen Sajin – Daitoppa!"

"Fūton: Daitoppa!"

Naruto's Great Breakthrough met Gaara's Infinite Sand Cloud variant and created a massive bluster that sent sand particles flying everywhere. The blond used his arm to shield his eyes from the airborne particulates, his shirt practically threatening to tear itself from his body. Shit! He's really goin' all out…

With his eyes averted to the ground, Naruto saw strands of sand twirl around his feet and start to climb up his legs. He bent down and placed his hands upon the silica, summoning wind chakra to his palms and blowing away the grasping tendrils. When he looked up again, Gaara's appearance had changed once more: sand had consumed his entire body, creating a beige-colored skin with dark, disconnected, vein-like markings. Sharp teeth were bared in an animalistic smile, and between the pointed ears and a tail as long as his body, he looked as demonic as Naruto imagined the sealed Ichibi to be.

"Sabaku Rō!"

Great arcs of sand rose up from beneath Naruto and converged into a giant spherical prison. The blond quickly tried to use the Attack Prevention Technique, a desperate effort as darkness encompassed his sight, but much like how he hadn't been able to beat Zetsu's chakra, he also couldn't phase through the copious amounts of demonic chakra Gaara had placed in the desert. Bastard forced my hand…

The sphere condensed upon itself with the intention of crushing the Konoha-nin within, but instead exploded into granules of sand. Wind buffeted the Ichibi Jinchūriki as his Sand Binding Prison was demolished from the inside, a foul chakra tinting the zephyr.

Naruto landed on the scorching sand on all fours, a cloud of bubbling reddish-orange chakra surrounding him; two tails of the Kyūbi's power whipped frantically from the base of his spine. The remnants of the Wind Release: Wind Sphere technique that had burst his imprisonment dissipated into the surrounding desert.

Across from him, Gaara let out a piercing cackle. "Finally! Let us see what a true battle of monsters looks like! Ryūsa Bakuryū!"

Naruto watched as hundred-foot waves of sand rose up, barreled towards him, and threatened to crush him beneath their bulk. He opened his mouth and roared, expelling a powerful wall of wind that crashed against the incoming Quicksand Waterfall Flow. The waves crested and exploded, showering the area with silica particles.

Amidst the sand shower, Gaara's maniacal laughter could be heard clearly. "Yes, yes, YES! This is the fight I have sought, the one that will prove my existence! Mother wishes to taste your blood, Naruto! Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu!"

This time, the sand that rose up from the desert swirled around Gaara instead of Naruto. Not good… He could only watch as the Jinchūriki's form grew and grew, throwing out a wind technique in the hope to stall whatever was happening.

It didn't work. The wind made no impact against the bulk of the giant creature that now faced him. Naruto tried not to wince as the high-pitched giggling of the Ichibi broke the piercing shrill of the awakened Land of Wind. "FINALLY! Come to me, little Kyūbi, and let me grind your bones into dust!"

That explains where Gaara gets it, Naruto thought with dark humor. Not that that was altogether surprising, given how his own Bijū's chakra influenced his mind when he used it. He exhaled another wind technique, putting more gusto into it, but despite the air that now blustered around them, the tanuki remained unmoved.

The One-Tail giggled shrilly once more. "That's it? Let me show you a REAL attack!" He inhaled deeply, stomach bulging with the effort, before one sandy paw slammed into his gut. "Fūton: Renkūdan!"

Even dodging the impact zone and summoning a sphere of wind to protect himself, Naruto was lifted off his feet by the force of the gale. He bounced off a sand dune, summoning more demonic chakra from the fox and scoring long trenches in the desert as he found loose stability in the shifting sands. Four tails of reddish-orange chakra trailed him as he darted around the series of Drilling Air Bullets that threw granules of silica into the air.

"Fūton: Shinkūha!"

The burst of Bijū-tainted wind that escaped Naruto's mouth sliced into the Ichibi's leg, causing the Bijū to unleash a shriek. Naruto smirked at the reaction, even as sand from the surrounding desert rose up and filled in the gash his Vacuum Wave had caused. He inhaled even deeper. "Fūton: Shinkū Renpa!"

A giant, sandy parody of the One-Tail rose from the earth, arms outstretched as the Vacuum Serial Waves broke against its body. Naruto was surprised to find the dummy still standing after weathering his attack. That thing's harder than the Ichibi? Harder than my Fūton?

That…shouldn't have even been possible.

"Heeheehee, you can't break my absolute defense! You won't be able to beat me here, little Kyūbi!"

Giant masses of sand rose up in curving arcs that once again threatened to encapsulate the blond. Naruto skirted around and between the masses with his Kyūbi-enhanced speed, seeking any opening to get closer to the lumbering tanuki. He sent slashes of air out at random intervals, whenever there was a brief opening in the Bijū's attacks to do so, but they either didn't connect or had no effect against the creature's vaunted defense.

"Sabaku Sōtaisō Fūin!"

Darkness encompassed him as sand came together in a grand mausoleum. He could feel the Kyūbi's chakra begin to leave his system, like his body was a sieve and the energy was slowly seeping out. Shit! As the sun's harsh rays were drowned out by shadow, he threw what remained of the demon's chakra into breaking free, using his cloak as the focal point of the technique. "Fūton: Kakudai Kiri!"

His encasement blew apart as the enhanced Expanding Mist technique took effect. The Ichibi cackled as the blond's human form was revealed. "What's next, little Kyūbi? You've got nothing left! You won't escape this one! Sabaku Rō!"

Hope this works… He yanked on the Kyūbi's chakra in his system, unmindful of the quantity, and simultaneously activated the Wind Stream Technique. The boost of demonic chakra sent him catapulting into the air beyond where he'd expected, high above the Sand Binding Prison, his body morphing in the process. By the time he hit the apex of his flight several hundred feet above the Ichibi, his form was a mesh of scarlet and black, with six tails protruding from his back and a vulpine skeleton serving as a sort of faux armor. Between the whisperings of the Nine-Tails in his head and the influence of the fox's negative emotions, Naruto barely possessed the wherewithal to unleash a second Wind Stream Technique, rocketing himself towards the top of the One-Tail's head.

The Ichibi looked up at him, his long tail curled over Gaara protectively, and expelled a breath of wind at the transformed Jinchūriki. Naruto – or the Kyūbi, it was getting harder to tell as the seconds ticked by – manipulated the air flowing around him, sluicing through the Bijū's attack and then the tip of the tail that was the creature's namesake. The One-Tail screeched in pain as the former Leaf shinobi cratered right next to where Gaara's slumped form stuck out of the tanuki's forehead like a giant zit. His six tails came together and slammed into the redhead with tremendous force.

Naruto used all his willpower to forcefully clamped down on the influx of Bijū chakra in his system as Gaara's body popped free from the Ichibi, the redhead's teal eyes flying open in surprise. Amidst the One-Tail's high-pitched wailing, the blond's vulpine skeleton disintegrated and his humanity returned, his skin appearing raw and sunburned.

It was a testament to Gaara's strength – or perhaps it was the Ichibi (or even both) – that he'd been forced to go into what Jiraiya had taken to referring to as the Version 2 Jinchūriki form. Even with the mantra of emotional apathy, it was beyond difficult to retain a semblance of humanity when enshrouded by as much of the Kyūbi's chakra as the six-tailed state took. He could only handle that much chakra for a dozen seconds or so, and even utilizing so much of it took far too much of his energy.

But in a fight between Jinchūriki – and Jiraiya's warning now seemed especially poignant – it had been a necessity. Which, if Naruto thought about it, was probably part of what the Kyūbi had planned on when he'd bargained for little more than to keep the seal loose.

Naruto managed to land with a greater semblance of grace than he'd expected on a dune that had only moments before comprised some part of the One-Tail's body, repressing a wince and a yell as his aching body screamed in agony. He could feel his body's epidermis regrowing, covering the sensitive layer of cells that was currently baking under the sun's warmth.

Almost 100 feet away lay Gaara. Naruto made his way over to his fellow Jinchūriki, finding the redhead staring up at the cloudless sky with a vacant look in his teal eyes, his skin cracked and breaking like the shell of an egg. "…If you're going to kill me," intoned the Suna-nin, "do it."

"You wanna die?"

Gaara turned towards the blond with an almost robotic motion. "I underestimated the monster within you. My reason for existing has been nullified. What other purpose do I now have other than to reinforce yours?"

Naruto crouched down so that blue eyes met teal, even as the newly knit skin around his legs protested the action. "I only kill to survive. Being alive is enough for my life to have meaning…because what do other people matter?"

Gaara blinked once, twice, his face a blank slate as to his thoughts. It reminded Naruto of nights spent talking to the emotionless redhead back in Konoha, trying to convince him not to go through with the Hidden Sand's invasion and unsure if he was actually making an impact. The Jinchūriki's sanity and logic seemed to wax and wane randomly, making it impossible to read him.

Finally, Gaara turned away. "Hm…" His arm twitched, and Naruto's gaze immediately flickered to it, wary of tricks, but the Suna-nin merely laid his palm flat against the desert. "Someone is coming."

"How do you—?"

"I can sense people through the sand."

Duh. That explained how he could track him through the Attack Prevention Technique.

"There are two people. One has a chakra level not dissimilar to the Kazekage's. The other is…strange." He sounded confused…as confused as Gaara had ever come across, anyway. "I can only sense that he has a larger than average mass."

Crap… The Kyūbi was almost done healing his body – and how ironic, that the fox was both the cause and relief of his pain – but Naruto didn't want to run across a person who could be compared to a Kage even on his best day, let alone after fighting another Jinchūriki.

At least – and the thought was almost painful, considering that he was trying to prove his independence – not while he was alone. "Need your help. How long 'til—?"

"Soon." Now that he was looking more carefully, Naruto could see tiny granules of sand rising up from the desert and filling in the cracks in Gaara's skin. "You are not seeking escape."

"Would it help? I need another minute."

"You won't have that long."

Naruto could feel a knot of tension growing in his belly as his body finished its recovery. Gaara was sitting up now, making to stand as two figures appeared on the horizon, one of average height, the other squat and bulky. The blond stood carefully, wary of stressing his new skin, blue eyes narrowing as dozens of fluttering objects approached the Jinchūriki pair. White and shaped into butterflies, they appeared innocuous enough, but Naruto wasn't one to take chances when circumstances pointed to them being anything but. "Fūton: Arashinome!"

Wind buffeted out from around the two Jinchūriki, creating a protective barrier just as the butterflies exploded. A dome of sand rose up around them as he dropped the Storm's Eye technique, wary of letting the wind blow the explosions into a firestorm. He offered Gaara a grateful inclination of his head, to which the Suna-nin merely blinked; every gesture he made seemed nearly effortless. "Were those exploding tags?"

"So it appeared." Gaara slowly dropped the barricade so they could see what they were dealing with.

Naruto watched with some perplexity as a mass of the white material – paper, he thought, observing the apparently origami butterflies unfolding themselves and creating sheaves and layers – conglomerated to form the head and shoulders of a blue-haired woman. "It seems you were right about the Ichibi's tenacity, Sasori. No wonder Deidara was unsuccessful with his mission."

Behind the woman – who could apparently talk while being only part of a body (a clone? Naruto wondered) – trundled the second figure. His body was robed entirely in the red-clouded black cloak that Zetsu had told him designated Akatsuki's members, his head and face shielded by a wide-brimmed straw hat and a mouth covering. "It's convenient that we managed to track him down at all, Konan," Sasori growled in a rough voice. Something in the back of his uniform shifted from side to side.

"Your network is impressive," complimented the blue-haired woman in a flat voice not unlike Gaara's.

Strangely, the spike of fear that Naruto expected he'd feel at being confronted by Akatsuki was absent. Maybe it was that he'd been recognized by the Leaf as a Jōnin, or that he'd beaten Gaara and the demon he contained (or even both), but regardless, some of his young (arguably naïve) confidence was beginning to flow through his veins.

He spared his fellow Jinchūriki a sideways glance. It was interesting that Akatsuki either only recognized or sought Gaara, but facing their main adversary gave the pair strong motivation to work together. Besides, without knowing their abilities, Naruto was loath to make a move that would leave him vulnerable and the redhead in Akatsuki's clutches.

A series of paper birds dove towards them, and Naruto jumped away as Gaara raised a wall of sand the projectiles exploded against. The blond unsheathed his hunting knives and raised them in a defensive position, unsure what to expect. More paper, this time shaped like miniature planes, dove through the ensuing smoke and exploded, fully splitting the Jinchūriki apart.

So much for working together.

Now airborne, Naruto barely managed to bring his knives together to block what was revealed to be a sharp-tipped metal tail from stabbing him. Sasori seemed to be glaring up at him from the ground, the metal links and ball bearings comprising his extra appendage stretching impossibly far. "Impressive," he growled, "but you're only delaying the inevitable." The tail thrust forward again just as Naruto landed, and the blond instinctively shoved chakra into the ground and melded through it before he was hit.

Tunneling through the sand with the Attack Prevention Technique, he surfaced where he'd last seen the Akatsuki member and slashed out, catching nothing but air. Instead, a black canister with stud-like protrusions exploded, releasing a cloud of green gas as the protrusions opened to reveal innumerable senbon.

Naruto had inhaled upon surfacing, cursing himself as he coughed on the toxic smoke, but he immediately returned to the safety of the desert underground, a couple of senbon scoring marks along his face, hitting his shoulders, and plinking off his forehead protector. The tail, senbon, poisons…he's a distance fighter, like me.

That worked for him; Naruto knew exactly what his own weaknesses were, so fighting against Sasori shouldn't be all that different.

When he surfaced this time, a zephyr began to form with him at the epicenter. Senbon were deflected by the brewing storm, and Naruto breathed a Dokugiri into the raging winds before letting them disperse into billowing clouds of white manchineel gas. He could make out Sasori's position not far from his own, and watched as the poison washed over the Akatsuki shinobi's bulky form. Taking advantage of the man's momentary blindness, he lobbed a couple of jarred knockout gases at his enemy.

The metal tail whipped up and smashed the jars to pieces before they ever reached Sasori.

Blue eyes went wide. What?! No one was immune to the manchineel gas; even he succumbed to the powerful irritant, despite training his body to become impervious to his remaining arsenal of deadly toxins. There was simply no way a human could simply ignore the effects of the blinding vapor…unless…

Sasori seemed to be staring at him with an intense expression. "It's aggravating that you're still standing. My poison should've knocked you out. I suppose I'll have to try something a bit more effective."

The black cloak shredded as the bulky man's tail ripped through it, revealing an orange mask that covered the entirety of Sasori's back like a perverse turtle shell, its open mouth serving as the outlet for the extra appendage. The mask flipped up 90 degrees, and a smaller figure in Akatsuki's uniform hopped out. Short and possessed of mousy scarlet hair, he looked more like a teenager than the intimidating adult Naruto had expected comprised Akatsuki.

Sasori let out a small sigh. "I hadn't expected to have to use him here," he noted, voice soft and disdainful, "but at least I'm not caught as unaware as Deidara." He held out a scroll with the kanji for 'three' on it and unsealed its contents in a puff of smoke. "Let's see how you fare against my favorite, hm?"

The clacking of wooden joints made its way to Naruto's ears as the smoke cleared to reveal a dark-haired figure wearing a ruffled brown cloak. Between the bulky form he'd originally associated with Sasori and this new revelation, the blond's suspicion was confirmed.

He's not human…or at least, he can protect his human body using puppets.

It was the same trick that had caused Tenten to lose in the Chūnin Exams, and the same logic that made fighting against inhuman opponents so difficult.

But Sasori wasn't Kankurō, and Naruto wasn't Tenten; he had far more tricks up his sleeves than the bun-haired girl had years ago, and Sasori had now revealed his true form.

The puppet soared towards him with arms extended, numerous blades glinting in the desert sunlight. Naruto sank back into the ground; thus far, Sasori hadn't displayed any abilities that would enable him or his puppets to reach into the earth, meaning the previously dangerous sand was now his greatest ally. Sadly, without the vegetation of the Land of Fire, he was still blind underground, but at least he could come up with a strategy—

"If you think you can hide from me, you're sadly mistaken."

It was amazing how well Sasori's apathetic alto carried through the scattered silica. Naruto swiftly tunneled away from where he'd been attacked aboveground, wary of whatever tricks the puppeteer hadn't revealed.

"Satetsu Kaihō."

A spike of something hard and gritty ripped through the blond's right leg and left shoulder. Naruto hissed in pain, the feel of poison leaking into his bloodstream a familiar one as he rose out from the earth to escape whatever had hit him.

Aboveground, an erratic mass of what appeared to be branching, black poles decimated the area, digging into and through the soft sand. Right hand clutching his injured shoulder, the blond watched as the poles seemed to disintegrate into individual particles, almost like…

Naruto scowled. Sand. This'll be just like fighting Gaara, 'cept without the Bijū.

Well, maybe that would make things easier.

Though at this point, he was starting to wonder if he wasn't suicidal for sticking around to fight Akatsuki after exhausting his power against Gaara.

"So it wasn't a fluke," Sasori mused. "You're immune to my poisons, just like Orochimaru. Your Jinchūriki power, perhaps?"

Naruto's grip against his shoulder tightened, blood dribbling between his fingers. With that statement, it didn't seem as if he would be allowed to escape even if he wanted to. "Guess I can't convince you you're wrong…?"

"He speaks," mocked the puppeteer. "And here I was beginning to think you were mute. Not that it matters all that much." The black sand finished coalescing into a large pyramid and rectangular prism. "Satetsu Kesshū."

The two geometric shapes plummeted towards him, and Naruto jumped backwards to avoid being crushed; once again, he'd been foiled in utilizing the Shinra Banshō, too blind and vulnerable while underground to rely on it. The senbon in his pouches rattled against one another incessantly, and the knives he'd re-holstered began to slide from their sheaths. He weaved hand signs and fired a blast of compressed air from his mouth, hoping to split the sand weapons into individual particles, but the Iron Sand Gathering Assault remained steadfast.

Well…damn. Maybe fighting Sasori would be as difficult as going up against the Ichibi; their defenses seemed to be fairly even, at least.

The senbon hidden in his sleeves slipped out and attached themselves to the dark pyramid looming beside him. He hastily divested himself of his hunting knives and remaining weapon pouches, repelling himself from the pull of the magnetic sand with a Violent Wind Palm. Now at a safe distance, the blond channeled an inch-long blade of chakra from his thumbtip and slid it from naval to chin, allowing his tunic and mesh undershirt to slip off his body; a quick slash at his neck, and the cloth holding his hitae-ate in place was severed. "No more metal," he told Sasori.

"Clever," admitted the puppeteer, "but you've only delayed the inevitable." The black sand – iron, if the jutsu names were anything to go by, Naruto told himself, ground into a fine powder – began to shift, transforming into a series of needles that mimicked the blond's Senbon Shadow Clone Technique.

Naruto began to prepare a buffet of wind to counter, but just as he was about to release it, a wall of sand rose between him and the incoming needle hail. It molded itself into a dome that encased him, and then Gaara surfaced from the desert floor in a parody of the Attack Prevention Technique. "Uh—"

"The Sandaime Kazekage possessed the Jiton kekkei genkai," Gaara explained in a dry rasp. Naruto thought he seemed tired…or aggravated; it was hard to tell. "His jutsu were inspired by the previous host of Shukaku. I will take over from here."

"You…wanna trade?"

Gaara stretched out his hand in the direction of the Akatsuki member; Naruto could hear the individual granules around him shift and compact to create a denser defense. "The woman can split herself into paper and uses explosive tags."

"…Thanks." Then, with no other words between them, Gaara dropped the dome and Naruto unleashed another wind technique at the assault of paper projectiles that had been launched at their backs. The projectiles exploded in midair, and the blond took the opportunity to separate from the other Jinchūriki, exhaling a Wind Release: Vacuum Wave that forced the blue-haired Akatsuki-nin – Konan, he thought Sasori had called her – to float to the side on her paper wings. She turned to him and flapped her wings, sending a tornado of paper his way.

Well, got her attention, Naruto thought sardonically, even as he protected himself with a Wind Sphere.

Konan seemed to be staring down at him with the same bored look that the saner version of Gaara wore. "I suppose it makes no difference how the job gets done," she noted. "Shikigami no Mai."

She split apart into thousands of pieces of paper, and Naruto decided that he didn't want to find out what she could with all of them. He brought his hands together into a cross-seal and summoned several clones, all of whom performed the Contracting Funnel technique. Twisters of wind rose in the area where Konan had disseminated herself, catching the loose sheets and becoming typhoons of white. A little more nature manipulation on the parts of the clones, and the winds became tornadoes of destruction, shredding everything within into innumerable scraps.

Well…that was easy…

The paper scraps came back together, reforming to show Konan, whole and unharmed. Or not.

His clones continue to summon twisters to keep the blue-haired woman occupied while Naruto ran through a new set of hand seals; Konan would eventually find a way out, and with his weapons lost to Sasori's iron sand, he finally had time to enact the plan he'd had in reserve since fighting Gaara. "Doton: Jōdo no Jutsu."

He spat out clumps of peat-filled dirt which mixed with the desert sand and settled into a dark layer of moist earth. Kneeling down, he slapped his hands against the soil and summoned chakra to the seeds buried within. "Haru Seichō no Jutsu."

Brambles, ferns, and saplings began to rise from the depths of the Loam Soil Technique, an Earth Release he'd created specifically to increase the longevity of flora grown via the Spring's Growth Technique. As the plants grew, Naruto spared a glimpse at the battle his clones were waging…and losing, he realized, watching Konan's multitude of paper kill one of his doppelgangers. Faster, he thought, dredging up a small amount of recovered Kyūbi's chakra and throwing it into the Haru Seichō. He was growing tired, and utilizing the fox's power while more susceptible to its influence was a dangerous ploy. Still, the plants began to grow faster and wilder, creating a miniature forest approximately 1,000 square feet, even as the demon's chakra knitted together the skin around the wounds Sasori had caused.

He whirled around with a blade of wind chakra extending along his hand and from his fingertips, swiping at the loose papers that were hovering at his back with a parody of Tsunade's Chakra Scalpel. A number of the sheets came together to form Konan's head, brown eyes flat. "Your resistance is futile."

"I'm not just gonna lay down and die," he retorted, then expelled a Poison Mist at the floating head. The Akatsuki-nin moved away, but a series of origami birds dove down in her place and exploded, forcing Naruto to retreat into the safety of his home-grown forest.

Now he was in his element, which was good, because between the fight with Gaara, using the Nine-Tails' power, the battle with Sasori, and then actually growing his own foliage, he was definitely starting to feel his limit. Luckily, Konan seemed to be a human opponent (finally!), and was thus susceptible to his normal, chakra-minimal tricks. Placing one hand against the nearest tree, he channeled chakra through it and sent a series of vines lashing out at the blue-haired woman. Konan manipulated her paper into a hardened shield the vines bounced off, and Naruto decided to abandon the assault, moving deeper into the greenery to search for the appropriate plant.

He summoned another shadow clone to watch his back, maintaining contact with the foliage around him to keep up the Green Sight Technique and prevent any unfortunate surprises. A flash of white caught his eye, and Naruto threw his chakra into a conifer, sending a hail of pine needles in the direction of the paper butterfly. One pierced the origami creation through its thorax, pinning it as neatly against a tree trunk as an entomologist would a real one to corkboard.

Naruto wished he could do the same to Konan, whose paper manipulation was proving surprisingly diverse and effective. He could see how Gaara, whose attacks were based around encasing and crushing, would have difficulty beating her.

The whooshing sound of displaced air caught his attention, followed immediately by the buzzing of a circular paper construct sawing through the greenery, toppling small trees and shredding broadleaf plants. His clone used a wind technique to try and blow the projectile off its path, and Naruto took the opportunity to find a denser portion of the canopy, withdrawing one of his scrolls in the process. He unsealed a purple jar and then grabbed the frond of a nearby fern, dribbling the toxin quickly but carefully over each leaf tip.

More paper began to float around him, the buzzing projectile having torn down a wide swath of foliage, allowing the desert sun to once more bear down on the blond. He waved the frond at a dense collection of paper, leaves hardened to resemble steel detaching and piercing the white sheets. The few pieces of paper struck by the fern's leaves flopped over where they were pinned to tree trunks, no longer mobile.

Huh. It…worked?

The paper converged together into Konan's expressionless visage. A small patch of the black cloak over her arm was missing, and she turned brown eyes to it, frowning slightly. "You are becoming a nuisance."

"I try."

He slashed across with the frond once again, sending another hail of poisoned leaves at the Akatsuki member. Konan fluttered apart, allowing the sharpened greenery to rustle harmlessly through her body. Several paper pieces folded themselves into shuriken, which spun wildly at the blond, while others lit up with seals, exploding moments later and setting the surrounding foliage ablaze.

Blue eyes glanced at the pierced paper from earlier. They remained motionless, unexploded and untransformed.

As the self-made forest went up in smoke around him, Naruto eyed the purple jar in his hand skeptically. Well…alright then…

He brought the jar's opening to his mouth and emptied its contents, tossing the empty container at the returning paper buzzsaw out of spite. The jar shattered on impact, and Naruto boosted himself out of the chakram's path with a Violent Wind Palm.

The Reppūshō had the added effect of turning the forest fire into a raging inferno which emitted thick, black smoke as it burned. Naruto could barely make out Konan, now hovering above the flaming canopy on giant paper wings, seemingly observing the destruction. Finding a fallen branch, he tossed it high into the air, boosting it with a smidge of wind manipulation, and watched as the blue-haired woman whirled on the spot and sent a cavalcade of origami projectiles in its direction.

One Kawarimi later found the Jinchūriki in the place of the pierced wood. He sprayed the poison in his mouth over his surprised adversary, calling upon his breathing exercises to give it distance and speed.

Konan's paper wings fluttered away aimlessly, her brown eyes widening in shock as she began to lose altitude. Naruto descended mere feet behind her, a blade of wind chakra extending from his fingertips. She seemed to sense what he was planning, for she tried to summon some semblance of defense, but with his chakra-negating agent soaking her body – and thus the chakra-laden paper that seemed to comprise it – it was ineffective.

Stabbing forward and then slashing sideways, Naruto's Blade of Wind decapitated the paper manipulator with a great spurt of blood. Body and head fell separately into the fire below, which the blond deftly avoided by applying the Wind Stream Technique until he was safely outside its influence. "Damn I'm good," he breathed in awe, watching the fire eat up his forest and adversary. Then, having basked sufficiently in his glorious victory, he looked around for Gaara, blue eyes widening in shock at the sight before him.

A menagerie of broken puppets garbed in red cloaks littered the desert, wooden limbs and bodies in various stages of splintered destruction. Gaara stood in the center of it all, arms waving about in patterns to control the same waves of sand he'd used to try to crush Naruto.

Sasori, however, didn't have a Bijū sealed in him, and when the sphere surrounding him condensed to the size of a ball, Naruto highly doubted the puppeteer had survived.

He cautiously approached ground zero, another blade of wind chakra at the ready in case Sasori actually was alive.

Or if Gaara chose to betray him.

The red-haired Jinchūriki turned to stare at him with his usual blank expression. "That was…challenging."

Understatement of the year. "Well, it was Akatsuki," Naruto pointed out. "How'd you do it, anyway?"

More silica particles floated up and surrounded the Suna-nin. "As I've told you, my defense is impenetrable. And I know how to fight puppeteers because of Kankurō."

Not completely impenetrable, thought the blond, though Gaara's perspective on things always seemed a bit skewed towards the self-aggrandizing. "So…we good?"

Gaara made a noncommittal noise, though he still nodded. "Yes. Those battles made me feel more alive than anything I'd experienced in Suna. It seems abiding by your timetable was not a complete waste of time after all."

"I do what I can. And on that note, can you, uh, take care of the…you know, everything?" he finished, gesturing unsurely at the smoldering remains of the now-dead Spring's Growth Technique and the debris of puppet parts strewn liberally across the desert.

The redhead knelt down, placing his hands upon the ground and summoning swirling eddies of sand to swallow up the surroundings. Within seconds, any evidence of the battles wrought in the Land of Wind were deep beneath the surface, leaving only the vast, empty expanse the two had started in once more. Naruto considered it a rather fitting metaphor – wiping the slate clean to move on with the next stage of their lives. Scouring the sands for any sign of combat Gaara had missed, Naruto asked, "So, what's next for you?"

"I will find someplace that has not heard of me…"

Well that's unex—

"…and they will learn to fear my existence."

Baby steps, then. "Alright then. Well…good luck."

"Hn." The sands parted beneath him, and in a move he wanted to say was inspired by the Shinra Banshō, Gaara disappeared.

Naruto finally let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, the action sounding more relieved than he expected. What a day… He'd escaped Konoha, won the fight against Gaara, and even better, proved that he could go toe-to-toe with two different Akatsuki members and even kill one of them. The logic that he'd played by since the Chūnin Exams so long ago had worked; just because the Leaf considered him a Jōnin didn't necessarily mean that that was the peak of his power. In fact, considering how many of his abilities came from Zetsu – and thus had to be kept secret – the fact that he could take down an S-rank opponent while only being judged in Konoha by his A-rank skills might not have been as surprising as it seemed.

And now he was well and truly free. It was almost hard to believe.

Blue eyes finished scanning the desert landscape. Guess they're gone. The clothes and forehead protector he'd removed fighting Sasori were nowhere to be found, likely a result of Gaara's handiwork. Oh well. It was a symbol of his old life, one he was leaving behind, though the loss of his shirt (and the senbon he'd been carrying) was noticeable in the dying afternoon heat. He'd almost hoped they'd remained uncovered alongside an Akatsuki cloak, so that Konoha assumed he'd been kidnapped, but it couldn't be helped. He would just make do with his original plan.

Fortunately, he had already decided on a heading before Akatsuki had decided to intervene.

He looked in the direction of the falling sun, shading his eyes with his hand. "So…that way," he said, adjusting his line of sight in a more northern direction. "And so it begins."

Several hundred feet away, from the confines of a giant saguaro, two yellow eyes peered out and watched as the blond disappeared into the distance. "Did you get all that? Of course. He didn't do too badly, huh? Hm, it seems his plan worked out after all. Everything came together in the end. How surprising." There was a brief pause, and then White Zetsu asked his partner, "But is it the end?"

Naruto's figure was now little more than a shadowy blur against the dying sun. Black Zetsu's voice adopted a haughty, mocking tone as he answered his other half: "What do you think?"


Author's Note: So, originally, this was going to be the final chapter, with a follow-up one-shot that detailed Naruto's life post-Konoha in brief snippets. However, I decided that the way I'd planned it was doing a disservice to the story, so I'll be expanding my idea and changing it into another number of chapters here.

About Sasori and Konan: I don't see Sasori going on in Akatsuki without a partner, and I also don't see Akatsuki recruiting more (similar to when people die in canon), so Konan fills that slot (as Pein is ruling Amegakure). As her abilities feel very one-trick-pony without proper planning (see canon fight vs. Tobi), I didn't see her standing much chance against a well-trained (albeit tired) Naruto. If the fights feel a tad rushed, it's intentional; I was trying to express Naruto's desperation, resignation, and adjustment from flowing between all the different back-to-back battles.

Also, I have my first fanart! Link is on my profile page. If you have any questions/comments, please feel free to ask in a review, and I'll respond to the best of my ability!