Previously: While exploring the world outside the Land of Fire, Naruto begins experimenting with other dangerous plants, including using the fruit of the cornet trees for non-violent interrogations. Zetsu follows him to the ruins of the Hidden Whirlpool, where the lack of any Uzumaki-related information convinces him to stop seeking clues to his ancestry.

-l-l-l-

What traits are inherent, and what can be attributed to the environment in which you're immersed?

-l-l-l-

Though her eyes were fixed on the group of children playing tag around the jungle gym, Ino's gaze seemed to stare straight through them, fixed on the past. A long time ago, that had been her and Sakura and the rest of their friends, carefree and ignorant of how quickly life changed. She felt aged beyond 18, and now wished that she could go back to a decade before, when life had been so much simpler.

She was drawn from her reverie by a presence taking up the spot beside her. Tenten smiled at her when she turned to see who her companion was, the brunette's elbows resting on the bench's back. "Hey," Tenten greeted, and Ino was grateful that the older kunoichi kept her voice soft.

"Hey. What brings you by?"

Tenten shrugged. "Just got back from a mission. Saw you sitting here and thought you might want some company. Age-appropriate company," she amended, brown eyes flitting from the blonde to the playing children and then back again. "Especially since today's—"

"I know."

Tenten fell silent at Ino's curt interjection, waiting until the younger woman seemed to settle herself again before quietly apologizing. "Sorry. I miss him, too, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Sorry. It's just…" she sighed. "Everything." She rubbed her forehead with one hand, hoping it would alieve her ails. "Hard to believe he's been gone a year."

"More than that," Tenten murmured, though she made sure not to let her companion hear. Naruto's status as killed-in-action and the ceremony honoring him at the Memorial Stone had taken place a year ago, but it had taken a couple of months for his status to go from active to MIA to KIA. Ino probably didn't need that reminder, though; she seemed stressed enough as it was. "Did you want to see him?"

Ino sighed again, and this time the breath that came out seemed like it carried the weight of the world with it. She smiled wryly at the weapons-specialist. "I guess we should, huh?" Her gaze fell to her lap for a moment, contemplative, before saying, "Alright," and standing with a groan of effort.

"You're really milking this whole thing," Tenten observed wryly, standing up beside the blonde.

Ino snorted with a sudden bout of good humor. "You have no idea."

Tenten's laughter echoed out a moment later. "Pun totally unintended," she managed between breaths. She threw one arm around the younger kunoichi's neck and led her away to the Memorial Stone. But maybe we could all use a little more laughter, especially on a day like today.

-l-l-l-

With the sun shining down and nothing surrounding him but blissful silence disturbed only by the wind rustling the tall grass, Naruto felt at peace. The grassy knoll he sat cross-legged upon was somewhere in the Land of Grass' lush countryside, in an area far removed from any cities, so he could meditate without any fear of interruption.

Meditating was a loose term for what he was doing; the quiet helped him focus on expanding the range of his Green Sight Technique. Even though he had the beginnings of a spy network set up to keep tabs on Akatsuki's movements (and thus avoid them), the blond's own bread and butter came from surprise attacks. He didn't want to fall victim to his own methodologies again, especially since he knew how potent they could be.

There was a flicker of chakra at the edge of his senses five miles away. Blond eyebrows furrowed over closed eyes; he would recognize that mishmash of humanity and nothingness anywhere. The real question he'd never been able to answer was why Zetsu's chakra appeared like that to his Green Sight Technique, when everyone else's was so normal.

"YOUR STUPIDITY IS ASTOUNDING. ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING HOW METHODICAL YOU ARE."

The sun and wind faded away to be replaced by the dank cold of the Kyūbi's prison. "You're not making any friends here."

"NOT ALL ALLIANCES NEED TO BE BUILT ON FRIENDSHIP. MANY ARE BUILT OUT OF NECESSITY. CASE IN POINT."

Naruto shrugged. "Fair enough. Did you have something more meaningful to share, or can I get back to work?"

The Kyūbi rolled his eyes, then said, "I'VE COME TO OFFER YOU POWER."

"I'm not using your power anymore. Akatsuki—"

The Kyūbi's paws slammed against the bars of his cell, sending ripples of water out from the shockwave. Naruto jumped at the impact, taking a step away from the Bijū, his train of thought lost amid the clatter. "I'VE NOTICED!" he bellowed. "IT'S BEEN OVER A YEAR SINCE YOUR BATTLE WITH THE YONBI JINCHŪRIKI; DID YOU THINK I WAS UNAWARE THAT YOU HAVEN'T DRAWN ON MY CHAKRA SINCE THAT TIME? YOUR TREPIDATION IS NEARLY PALPABLE."

"They have a guy who can track Jinchūriki who use the Bijū's power!" Naruto shouted back, now more angry than intimidated. "Your power! And you think I'm just gonna take you up on this offer and give myself away? I'm safe right now—"

"YOU'RE DELUSIONAL," snarled the fox, "IF YOU THINK YOU'RE SAFE THE WAY YOU ARE NOW. DESPERATION BREEDS INGENUITY. AKATSUKI WILL FIND YOU, AND THEY WILL KILL YOU, WHICH WILL BE MY END. AND THAT IS UNACCEPTABLE."

"Are you only motivated by self-preservation?"

"AREN'T YOU?" the Kyūbi shot back. "THAT IS THE CORE TENET OF OUR PARTNERSHIP, IS IT NOT?" Naruto remained silent, unwilling to grant the demon the satisfaction of admitting he had a point. "THE POWER I WISH TO SHARE WITH YOU IS NOT MY OWN."

"Huh? What do you know that I don't?"

"PLENTY, BUT THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT. IN THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE, SENJUTSU."

"What the hell is senjutsu?"

The Kyūbi settled down in his prison and laid his head over his crossed paws. "SENJUTSU IS ONLY ONE OF THE POWERS USED BY THE RIKUDŌ SENNIN. IT IS THE MANIPULATION OF NATURAL ENERGY, WHICH IS INFINITELY MORE POWERFUL THAN THE PATHETIC NINJUTSU USED BY YOU HUMANS."

Naruto crossed his arms and scowled at the slight, but didn't rise to the bait. "What's natural energy? And if it's so powerful, why don't more people use it?"

"SIMPLE. IT IS BEYOND THE BREADTH OF MOST HUMANS TO UNDERSTAND."

"And you think I'm different?"

The Kyūbi's muzzle pulled back to reveal sharp, white teeth. Naruto didn't find the gesture reassuring; the fox's amusement often came at his own mockery. "NOT ESPECIALLY. BUT YOU HAVE AN ADVANTAGE IN ME." At Naruto's raised eyebrow, the demon let out an aggravated huff of air. "THE BIJŪ," he explained with the slowness of talking to a toddler, "ARE CONSTRUCTS OF NATURAL ENERGY."

"You're—"

"SILENCE. AS IT SO HAPPENS, YOU MANAGED TO STUMBLE UPON THE SECRETS OF NATURAL ENERGY SOME TIME AGO, BUT HAVE MERELY DABBLED IN IT UP TO THIS POINT."

"Wait, what? I've—"

"SILENCE! ONE MORE INTERRUPTION…" he threatened. Annoyed as he was, Naruto knew not to push the demon's buttons; he raised his hands to shoulder height in a gesture of acquiescence, and the fox continued, "GOOD. NOW, NATURAL ENERGY IS PRESENT IN THE AIR AND THE EARTH, IN ESSENTIALLY ALL COMPONENTS OF THE NATURAL WORLD. YOU DON'T EVEN REALIZE THE EXTENT TO WHICH YOU USE IT. YOUR PLANT-BASED JUTSU, YOUR SENSING ABILITIES—YES?"

Naruto lowered his questioning hand, pressing past the testiness in the Bijū's voice. "Sorry, you're saying I've been using natural energy this whole time? That's how I created Midori Shiryoku no Jutsu?"

"YES AND NO. AS I WAS SAYING, YOUR JUTSU HAVE A BASIS IN UTILIZING NATURAL ENERGY BECAUSE NATURAL ENERGY CONNECTS THE MEDIA THROUGH WHICH YOU CHANNEL YOUR CHAKRA, BUT YOUR CHAKRA IS STILL THE ACTIVE COMPONENT. YOU COULD CONSIDER THE NATURAL WORLD THROUGH WHICH YOU USE YOUR JUTSU AS A CONDUIT FOR YOUR OWN CHAKRA, AND THE NATURAL CHAKRA PRESENT THERE STRENGTHENS YOUR JUTSU. YOUR TEACHER, THE VEGETABLE…HE IS AN AMALGAM OF HUMANITY AND THE NATURAL WORLD, SO WHEN YOU ATTEMPT TO SENSE HIM, THE NATURAL ENERGY PRESENT IN THE PLANT NETWORKS YOU USE SENSES ONLY THE HUMAN ASPECTS OF HIM, NOT THE NATURAL ASPECTS."

Ooh…that explains why Zetsu always looks so weird to Midori Shiryoku no Jutsu… Naruto wasn't sure he fully understood what the Kyūbi was saying, but from what he could understand, he at least had an explanation as to the anomaly that was his mentor.

"NOW, SENJUTSU IS PERFORMED BY WIELDING NATURAL ENERGY AS THE CHAKRA SOURCE INSTEAD OF THE MIXTURE OF PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL ENERGIES HUMANS UTILIZE. AS IT ISN'T LIMITED BY PHYSICALITY OR WILLPOWER, WHICH WAXES AND WANES WITH TIME AND EMOTIONAL IMBALANCES, IT ISN'T SUBJECT TO THE SAME CONSTRAINTS AS JUTSU PERFORMED BY HUMAN CHAKRA, AND THUS IS EXPONENTIALLY MORE POTENT. DO YOU REMEMBER HOW MY CHAKRA INCREASED THE GROWTH OF YOUR PLANTS AGAINST THE AKATSUKI WOMAN? THAT IS BUT A GLIMPSE OF THE POWER OF WHAT SENJUTSU CAN DO."

"Hold on then. If using natural energy is like using your chakra, and Kisame can sense your chakra, how is learning senjutsu going to help me at all? He'll still be able to track me."

"THE CHAKRA YOU TAKE FROM ME IS IMPURE BECAUSE OF HOW I WAS SEALED. IT RETAINS SOME QUALITY OF NATURAL ENERGY, BUT AS I AM NOT WHOLE, NEITHER IS MY CHAKRA STABLE. NOR DO YOU HUMANS KNOW HOW TO UTILIZE THE CHAKRA OF THE BIJŪ IN ITS PUREST FORM, EVEN WHEN CALLING UPON IT AS A JINCHŪRIKI. THE SENJUTSU I AM PROPOSING FOR YOU TO LEARN WOULD BE SIMILAR TO HOW THE VEGETABLE USES IT. IT WOULD BE UNDETECTABLE BY ANY FORM OF CONVENTIONAL SENSING."

"Seems pretty powerful." His eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Why're you sharing this with me? You have no reason to help me without getting something in return, and this doesn't seem to do anything for you. At least before you thought you could break the seal if I kept using your chakra."

"THERE WILL COME A TIME WHEN YOUR CURRENT SKILLS ARE NOT ENOUGH, AND YOUR PRINCIPLED STUBBORNNESS TO NOT USE MY CHAKRA WILL GET US KILLED. THIS IS UNAVOIDABLE; YOUR MACHINATIONS ARE NOT FOOLPROOF, AND THEY WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL YOU. SUCH IS THE FOLLY OF HUMANKIND. AS I REFUSE TO LET THAT HAPPEN, AND YOU'RE TOO STUPID TO SEE THE BENEFIT OF MY STRENGTH, I MUST MAKE CERTAIN CONCESSIONS TO PRESERVE MY OWN LIFE."

"Well…thanks then, I guess. So, how do I learn senjutsu?"

The Kyūbi chuckled, a deep sound of amusement that reminded Naruto far too much of his tutor's dark side. "YOU PRACTICE SELF-RELIANCE AND YET THINK I'M GOING TO SIMPLY IMPART UPON YOU THE SECRETS OF SENJUTSU? YOUR AUDACITY IS ASTOUNDING." He closed his eyes in a gesture of dismissal. "EVEN IF I DID KNOW HOW TO TEACH A HUMAN TO UTILIZE NATURAL ENERGY, IT WOULD BE HYPOCRITICAL TO DO SO, GIVEN YOUR PHILOSOPHY. THERE IS TIME YET FOR YOU TO LEARN. ENJOY THE TRAINING."

Naruto scowled at the beast's mocking lilt, but didn't offer a parting remark as he transitioned back to the real world; the Kyūbi would likely find his annoyance even more amusing. "Hey, Zetsu?" he greeted as the plant-man's head surfaced in front of him. "Have you ever heard of senjutsu?"

"Senjutsu? What's that?"

"Never mind." Assuming what the fox had told him was correct, learning senjutsu would be a great boon to his repertoire. But if the Kyūbi wasn't willing to teach him, and Zetsu – who apparently utilized natural energy without even being aware of it – couldn't teach him, how was he supposed to learn such a useful skill?

At least when he'd been studying plants, poisons, weapons, and elemental ninjutsu, he'd had a basis for his training, a foundation from which he'd learned and built from. He'd had guidance in the forms of Zetsu, Tenten, and Asuma, whose knowledge he'd soaked up and then manipulated to his own style.

But here? All he could say was that he now knew natural energy existed, and that he'd sort of been making use of it for some time.

Naruto heaved a tired sigh, his peaceful meditation broken. This'll take awhile.

-l-l-l-

"Son of a bitch!"

"Oh, it must not be going well. What gave it away?"

Naruto unleashed a burst of wind that razed the tall grove of bamboo he stood in to waist-height. "Argh! I'm starting to think natural energy is a bunch of bullshit! Damn Kyūbi's probably just laughing his stupid ass off."

"Your frustration is quite amusing. Couldn't you see for yourself?"

"Yeah, frickin' hilarious," he muttered. "Like I wanna talk to him…giant jackass."

"If it weren't for him, you wouldn't know about natural energy at all."

"Big whoop," Naruto groused. "Like I've made any progress since I learned about it."

After two months of trying to channel natural energy, the blond was on the verge of a mental breakdown. It was one thing to not see the results he wanted as quickly as he would have liked – like when he'd originally started to learn to throw senbon or use wind ninjutsu – but at least in those areas he'd been able to make visible progress and slowly build to something. Plus, he'd had people already better than him to catch up to and prove that progress could be made

Here, it seemed more likely that he was being played for a fool. No progress, no teacher, no evidence at all that the fox was telling the truth…

Aside from Zetsu.

Naruto sighed, letting his head loll backwards and closing his eyes to the tiny beam of sunlight that shone upon his face. Natural energy explained too much of the unnatural phenomenon that was the renegade plant-man, from his sporadic chakra pattern to the ease with which he manipulated green matter. That Zetsu wasn't even aware of the fact that that's how he was doing it was even more frustrating. Even when he'd told his mentor about it in more depth, Zetsu hadn't been able to offer anything more helpful than "Oh" and "How interesting".

The situation was maddening. A break was in order.

Using the Attack Prevention Technique to travel through the earth, he eventually resurfaced in a hollowed out burrow beneath one of the Land of Grass' overgrown hillsides. Settling himself down under a hole he'd created for venting smoke to the outside, the blond pulled out his sealing scroll and unraveled it, applying chakra to summon small squares of yellow paper and stalks of hops and lavender stored within.

The jars he'd carried around while in Konoha had always felt cumbersome, but now that he was on the run, their weight felt magnified. And even though he had the Poison Mist Technique at his disposal, it felt awkward to not keep his usual array of poisonous liquids and gases on his person in some form.

As a result, he'd had an…enlightening…conversation with a passing Suna-nin, who (courtesy of the Devil's Breath) had divulged some of the secrets to the Hidden Sand's puppetry-based tricks. And, ironically, the solution to his problem came down to a skill that should have been near and dear to him: sealing.

To fit such a multitude of weapons inside a puppet's body, seals – not altogether dissimilar from the standard storage seals Tenten was so fond of – were used. And to successfully use gaseous poisons, Suna-nin sealed the vapors into breakable pellets that were timed to release their contents upon impact.

Naruto didn't have access to such pellets – though he supposed he could get them if he so desired – but he didn't need them. As he was activating the poison bombs by hand rather than through a puppet, he could use his own chakra as the trigger, similar to an exploding tag, rather than simply relying on an impact that would break the bomb's shell. As a result, he merely needed a basis for the seal that held the poisons, and a tweak to whatever timing matrix was built into it.

Fortunately, the Suna-nin he'd conversed with had been more than willing to hand over a sample – and the blond had continued to marvel at the power of the Devil's Breath powder – and after some searching, he'd managed to find a vendor in Kusagakure competent enough in fūinjutsu to make the modifications required.

He'd thought about creating the seals himself – after all, it would have given him the connection to his clan that he'd so desired – but without any real sealing expertise, the process would have been arduous and time-consuming. Fūinjutsu, according to the vendor he'd talked with, was an art form that required paying attention to every minute detail, and Naruto's patience was already being used up on trying to understand natural energy.

Using a match, he lit a small fire and threw the hops and lavender into it. Naruto caught the resulting smoke in a small bubble of wind chakra, expanding his elemental manipulation as the hops eventually turned to ash. When that was done, he picked up one of the yellow squares and held it up against the sphere of wind. With a small application of chakra, the smoke inside slowly filtered into the seal-inscribed paper, which wrapped itself into an inch-sized sphere after several seconds. Naruto repeated those motions with the additional papers until his knockout gas was completely gone from the wind bubble; a dozen yellow spheres lay around him as evidence of his work.

"Now that that's done—"

Naruto flinched and hurled a senbon at the wall, where Zetsu's head was watching him from several feet up. "What the hell, Zetsu?! You scared the crap outta me!"

"But we've been here the whole time… Don't say you forgot about us."

"I just…I thought you left. Don't you normally have better things to do?"

"Than annoy and terrify you? Not really."

"Fantastic," Naruto grumbled.

He could feel Zetsu's yellow eyes watching him as he puttered about his makeshift home, tidying up his mess to draw his mind away from his frustrations. Scooping up the poison bombs, he dropped them in a small bowl for safekeeping and waited for his mentor to speak; Zetsu never stayed around if he didn't have something to say.

"What's your next move? Are you gonna give up?"

The blond scowled to himself; with his back turned, the gesture went unnoticed by his tutor. "No. I don't trust the Kyūbi, but it's not like he's said anything untrue so far. He's motivated by self-interest, so hurting me in the long run just hurts him. He's like you…but more invested in my life than you are."

"Oh, Naruto-kun, you make it sound like we don't care about you! I don't."

Naruto allowed himself to smirk in amusement. "Actions speak louder, Zetsu. You wouldn't hang around if you didn't care at least a little." There was a deep grunt, followed by a brief titter from White Zetsu; if the plant-man's darker half had any visible facial features, the blond was sure his mouth would be twisted into a scowl.

"Well-played, child."

The Jinchūriki felt his mentor's chakra slip back through the earth, tracing it as he zipped through the ground until he was out of range of the Green Sight Technique. "Until next time," he murmured to the empty room.

-l-l-l-

"Argh!"

He could hear White Zetsu's voice asking what was wrong, and Black Zetsu reply with something mockingly sarcastic, but since the plant-man wasn't actually around, the fact that he could so accurately predict his mentor's commentary based on sheer memory only furthered to sour his mood. Dick.

Frustrated with his continued lack of progress with natural energy, he laid backwards in the foot-high grass and pillowed his hands behind his head. Blue eyes squinted into the sun and eventually closed against the harsh light. It was so peaceful in the outdoors, with the breeze whistling through the grass the only sound around; he could easily see why Shikamaru loved to spend his free time looking up at the clouds.

Thanks to Akatsuki, Naruto didn't find the sight of the clouds all that comforting anymore, so instead he let his mind wander, relaxing into the embrace of the surrounding weeds.

Maybe I should get a new home.

His hovel, if it could be called that, wasn't terrible, but when compared to how he'd lived in Konoha, the blond knew that continuing to rough it in the wilderness wasn't what he wanted, even if it did keep him out of the public eye. There were too many amenities he missed, not to mention the stability of having a place where he could prepare his poisons in a more conventional way.

He released a calming breath as a vision formed before his closed eyes. Plants would invade every corner of his home so that he had access to whatever he wanted when he wanted it. With any luck, he could learn to manipulate the growth cycles of some of the flora too large for the standard apartment, creating miniatures of the manchineel and cornet trees for convenience; that, after all, was how the bonsai art form had come about, right?

They would also serve as a defense in case of emergency. His traveling through the Lands of Wind and Earth had reinforced the point that he should always be prepared for the unexpected, and if he was to be attacked on his home turf, he wanted to be in the most advantageous position possible. Vines, he pictured, and other dangerous plants he could use to incapacitate and restrain any enemies that found him, like the gympie gympie.

And maybe, if he was lucky, a small garden of his own making, filled with green life that had nothing to do with battle. Plants that made him happy to care for, made him feel like there was more to life than living in fear and waiting for the inevitable kill-or-be-killed fight.

"SO YOU CAN ACHIEVE IT…INTERESTING."

Naruto opened his eyes at the Kyūbi's interjection, an annoyed expression that felt strangely misplaced twisting his features. He wanted to snap at the fox and challenge the Bijū's amused cynicism, but a feeling of peace that flowed through his body, following the blood in his veins, tempered the instinct.

The sun, which before had been bright and nearly overwhelming, now pulsed with a life-giving warmth. He could sense a boundless energy emanating through him from above, not dissimilar to adrenaline, but instead of being spawned from excitement or fear, it merely resonated a deep calm.

Around him thrummed the energy comprising the grass, and even further out, he could sense a vaster power hidden in the Land of Grass' forest. He marveled at the sensory input, noting the collection of human chakra signatures a dozen miles out on the edge of his mental periphery. So far…way further than Midori Shiryoku no Jutsu

"I TOLD YOU NATURAL ENERGY WAS POWER—THOSE MARKINGS!" The warmth of the sun was replaced by the dankness of the Kyūbi's prison, the fox's lips pulled back in a snarl of hatred to reveal too many sharp teeth. Naruto took an instinctive step backwards, unused to dealing with the Bijū's naked hatred. "HOW DID YOU TAP INTO HIS POWER?"

"Whose power? What're you talking about?" He looked down into the water at his feet, staring at his own rippling reflection and trying to see what had stirred the Kyūbi's ire.

Even in the dim, yellowish light, the markings the fox spoke of were hard to miss: a circle in the center of his forehead, with a single dot inside it; shadowy lines rimming his eyes much like Gaara's; thicker lines trailing from the inside corners of his eyes out to his ears; and two more short, curved tear tracks on either side of his nose. "What the—?"

The Kyūbi huffed a deep, annoyed breath. "OF COURSE," he muttered, his low undertone still managing to rumble clearly throughout his prison, "WHY WOULD YOU KNOW? STUPID. THOSE MARKINGS ARE THE SAME ONES WHICH DECORATED SENJU HASHIRAMA WHEN HE USED SENJUTSU."

Naruto furrowed his brow. "The…Shodai? You're saying I have the same power as the Shodai?"

The Kyūbi seemed to lose whatever trepidation the markings had initially caused, settling his head upon his overlapped paws and closing his eyes in a careless gesture. "WHO KNOWS? THE POSSIBILITY EXISTS, THOUGH YOU'RE LESS INTIMIDATING THAN HIM BY FAR." After a moment, he opened one eye, observing Naruto – who seemed to be frowning at his reflection, dissecting his facial markings – before closing it again and musing, "SENJUTSU TAKES MANY DIFFERENT FORMS, DEPENDING UPON WHAT ASPECT OF THE NATURAL WORLD IS DRAWN UPON. GIVEN YOUR PARTICULAR SKILLSET, I SUPPOSE IT MAKES SENSE THAT YOU WOULD UTILIZE THE SAME OR A SIMILAR VEIN OF NATURAL ENERGY AS HASHIRAMA. ONLY THROUGH PRACTICE WILL YOU DETERMINE TO WHAT EXTENT YOUR POWER COPIES HIS."

"Yeah…yeah, thanks."

The sun's warmth returned with all the suddenness of a lightning strike, and the brightness was such a stark contrast to the Kyūbi's prison – magnified by the natural energy coursing through his body – that he couldn't help but shut his eyes. "Ah! Shit!"

He could hear the Kyūbi's sadistic laughter in the back of his head as colored spots danced behind his eyelids. "Stupid…son of a—" he snarled, angry at his temporary blindness. Then he heaved a long sigh. Let it go, Naruto. Just…focus.

Another deep breath. While his eyes remained closed, he focused on easing the tension from his body, letting his muscles go slack and allowing his body to mold back into the grass. The sun's radiant heat helped him relax, a pleasant pulse that seemed to beat in time with his heart. It revitalized him, filling him with a strength and peace of mind he hadn't felt since he'd been too naïve to recognize his own weakness and the threats facing him.

He focused on the feel of the natural energy now that he knew it was there, tentatively exploring the surroundings with enhanced senses. Even after wielding nature as a weapon for years, he'd never felt such a connection to plant life before.

Once again, he focused on his sensory abilities, marveling at the updated range of the Green Sight Technique. There was a squadron of four shinobi about 12 miles out: three were standing on the ground, feet tangled in grass that reached knee-high; the fourth was crouched in a large redwood tree 30 feet aboveground, one knee in contact with a branch.

It seemed that everything not comprised of natural energy was lit up like a flare in his sensory perception. The chakra of the faraway shinobi appeared bright blue to his vision, a stark contrast to the emerald green of the trees and vines and grass. He followed their movements as the person in the tree stood up, the remaining three ninja leaping to join their companion on the high ground and taking off into the distance.

Blue eyes opened slowly after the quartet left the range of the Green Sight Technique, Naruto leveraging himself to his feet and stretching towards the sun. What else can I do?

He took several steps and noticed that the sun's warmth immediately felt more muted, that the surrounding grass no longer seemed to lend him its strength. A brief activation of the Midori Shiryoku showed him nothing of interest within five miles, and he cursed at the reduced sensory input. "Damn it all!"

Naruto sat back down, closed his eyes, and took several deep breaths in an attempt to quell his anger. Time seemed to stretch as he sharpened his focus on how natural energy had felt, trying to push aside the irritation that accompanied failure.

He eventually fell into a light doze, and only the trickle of serene, vibrant energy flowing through him shook him from his rest. An easy breath escaped his lungs through lips lifted in a miniscule smile, relief that his one success hadn't just been a fluke flooding his body alongside the natural energy. Slowly opening his eyes so as to not be blinded by the sun, the blond marveled at the greenery around him, at the limitless strength at his fingertips.

Tentatively manipulating the grass' natural energy, afraid of losing his tenuous grasp on it, Naruto carefully performed the seals for the Spring's Growth Technique. Grow, he urged mentally as his fingers came together in the final seal.

All the grass in a 100-foot radius surrounding him sprouted to seven feet high in an instant; a nearby rabbit lay prone on a cushion of green, skewered by leaves as suddenly sharp as a sword.

Naruto gaped. This…this is…awesome.

My new weapon…this might just do the trick.

-l-l-l-

Naruto's stillness was matched only by the night's, the dead air of the Land of Grass' summer a quiet companion. Much like the surrounding plant life, the blond was relaxed, the thrumming energy the sun provided muted in the presence in the moon.

Mastering natural energy – though the renegade doubted he'd achieved as such, his strides in harnessing it notwithstanding – had been as arduous a process as discovering its existence. Natural energy, as he'd found out over the course of months and months and months, was finicky. Naruto had yet to figure out if it was some aspect of natural energy itself, or if it was just because he was used to using what he'd now come to think of as human chakra for his techniques, and the switch was simply challenging, like undoing years of muscle memory. The two energy types were vastly different, and after becoming familiar with natural energy, he could only think of describing human chakra as artificial.

And that had been the problem, or at least a giant stumbling block in learning senjutsu. He'd started out trying so hard to utilize natural energy through his own chakra that he hadn't realized how poorly the two melded together. It worked in a way – because using the two in tandem had been how he'd unknowingly used the Spring's Growth Technique and manipulated flora previously – but the efficiency loss was massive. Not to mention that plants simply didn't like being fed artificial, human chakra. He couldn't force nature to work for him; he had to, as Zen as it sounded, become one with the greenery.

That had been the key to opening up the new world of opportunity that now lay before him.

There. Eight miles out, kneeling down and picking mushrooms, a steady pulse of human chakra.

At least the last two nights hadn't been in vain, he mused, sinking into the ground and traveling languidly towards his target. According to one of his sources, Koizumi Iwana was a renegade Chūnin from Kirigakure who'd been spotted skulking around the big gambling cities making a nuisance of himself. He was the perfect opportunity for the blond to sink his teeth into and test how combat-ready his senjutsu skills were; especially at night, when the surrounding natural energy was weaker due to lack of sunlight.

Naruto made sure to keep the city of Tateyama to his east as he moved through the underground, knowing that the urban jungle put his senjutsu abilities at a severe disadvantage if Iwana somehow managed to escape him.

He paused in his stalking as a flicker of chakra brushed against his senses some six miles to the south. What was that? Focusing his senses on the source only revealed some cattails on the shore of a burbling stream that he'd noted running through the area, but no human chakra. Hmm…

In the distance, Iwana straightened, his chakra suddenly roiling. Naruto sensed him jump into the canopy and head towards Tateyama. Cursing whatever had spooked the man, the blond rushed to intercept the nukenin's path, maintaining a bead on his location with his new and improved Green Sight Technique.

He quickly overtook the fleeing nukenin, rising from the earth and manipulating the trees to drop their leaves in a furious blockade. "What the—?" Iwana managed, before spying the blond. "You're not the oinin."

Oinin? Like Haku?

With the man's face almost completely hidden beneath a head covering, it was hard to judge his surprise. His arrogance, however, was nearly palpable in his voice. "Doesn't matter. Can't catch what you can't see." And before the blond's eyes, the Mist renegade disappeared.

Naruto smirked. I still see you, stupid. Thanks to the Green Sight Technique now using natural energy, Iwana's human chakra shone like a blue beacon against the forest's emerald aura. With the dwindling natural energy remaining in his leafy barricade, he directed the leaves to surround the Chūnin. Then, in a move admittedly inspired by Konan's paper-based ninjutsu, the foliage converged, slicing through the man with razor-sharp edges.

There was a brief scream before Iwana's body became visible, dull-colored clothes shredded by innumerable cuts and stained dark with blood. Naruto stared at his own hands for a moment, marveling at the combative potential and ease with which he'd wielded it. Awesome…if only—shit!

The flicker of chakra had returned, although this time it took the shape of an actual person climbing from the stream not 50 feet behind him. He whirled and expelled a burst of wind chakra from his palms, scattering the senbon aimed for his neck.

Silence reigned as the blond stared into the porcelain mask of the Hidden Mist's hunter-nin, refocusing his broken concentration on the surrounding flora as the Mist shinobi finished melding out of the stream. Mizugakure no Jutsu… That, at least, explained why he hadn't sensed another presence; the oinin had likely traveled in the stream, only briefly appearing in his sight when he'd brushed against the cattails. "That body belongs to Kirigakure," spoke the oinin, nodding towards Iwana's corpse.

She, Naruto corrected. While the loose, striped clothing and hidden features gave nothing away, the oinin's voice held a distinctly feminine lilt. Demanding, too, he mused, identifying the statement as a warning to back off.

History had instilled in him a distrust of oinin, fake though Haku had likely been, and that paranoia was not helped by the unprovoked attack this Kiri-nin had launched at him. With any luck, the night hid the dark markings of his sage powers returning to him. He moved aside, resting one hand against a tree trunk and gesturing with another at the corpse. "By all means."

The oinin Body Flickered to Iwana's form, Naruto tracking her chakra every step of the way. She knelt down and appeared to confirm the death before standing back up.

Naruto ripped the moss from the tree trunk and used it as a shield against the blast of water that came from the Kiri-nin. Never trust a solo oinin! he yelled mentally, focusing on the natural energy of the moss in his hands to suck up the moisture. The plant life absorbed it greedily, growing more expansive as it did so.

When the deluge stopped, Naruto dropped his hold on the moss, mentally promising to return it to its rightful place. Once again, he and the oinin stared each other down, blue eyes taking note of the short sword – a wakizashi, his training with Tenten identified – now gripped in her hands. He reached for the natural energy in the trees beside her, summoning silent vines that looped around her wrists and neck and hoisted her high.

The wakizashi dropped, but two quick one-handed seals had the vines grasping at a substituted piece of bamboo instead of flesh. Naruto dove forward in a handspring, away from the oinin's jab at his spine, the grass around his hands lancing towards his assailant mid-flip. She leaped backwards to avoid the sharp flora, melding back into the stream and disappearing from view.

Naruto scoured the bank of the stream for any sign of the (likely fake) hunter-nin, but the Hiding in Water Technique appeared seamless. He stretched the few cattails that lined the banks to their limit, attempting to sense the kunoichi with the Green Sight Technique, but could only detect her spreading her chakra throughout the water.

A brief frown twisted his lips. Still some problems, huh? Natural energy was incredibly powerful, but it definitely had its limits, or at least some kinks to iron out and work on. Just because he could feel artificial chakra that touched greenery didn't mean that he knew how it was being used.

But then, that was the whole purpose of this experiment, wasn't it?

The stream suddenly rose up in a wave, the Kiri-nin riding its crest as it crashed down over the blond's position. Naruto backpedaled quickly, once again activating the absorptive properties of the surrounding moss even as he noted it wouldn't be enough. He fought the urge to disconnect from the gathered natural energy and simply throw out a wind technique to end the fight. Gotta finish this test run.

As he moved, he dug into the pouch at his back, throwing a handful of sunflower seeds at the incoming water. Senpō: Tane Bakudan!

Explosions dispersed the wave as the natural energy stored inside the seeds burst. The oinin tumbled for an instant before finding stability and landing beside her discarded wakizashi. She grabbed it and charged Naruto, who blocked with the piece of broken bamboo she'd used as her earlier substitution.

He thought he heard the Kiri-nin snort behind her mask as their weapons clashed. Yeah, laugh it up…

The thing about bamboo was that it grew fast. For a plant, anyway. But fast enough that, in the olden days, interrogators used to place it under the fingernails of potential informants and simply wait for it to grow and cause excruciating pain to get the answers they sought.

Combining that natural growth with the potential growth accessible via senjutsu gave the blond all sorts of ideas.

Naruto activated the Shinra Banshō, sinking into the ground to his waist and surprising the oinin. Her thrust left her overextended, and he immediately took advantage of her situation by jabbing the bamboo into her stomach. "Senpō: Sashiki no Jutsu!"

The bamboo branch pierced the oinin and appeared to simply grow through her, four blood-stained stakes erupting from her back. She hacked up even more blood, the thick fluid landing on his head and streaming through his blond hair to his face. "Uck! Are you kidding me?"

He pushed forward on the Kiri-nin's dead weight, letting her fall backwards only to be propped up awkwardly on the branches of the Sage Art: Cutting Technique. "Stupid…" grumbled the blond at nothing in particular, deactivating the Attack Prevention Technique and running a hand through his hair. He brought his hand down and held it close to his face, simply staring at the blood staining it for a long moment, mind awhirl with too many thoughts.

Then, slowly, he curled his fingers into a fist, blue eyes taking in the view of the damage his technique had caused and the power now at his disposal. Yeah…that'll do…

-l-l-l-

Author's Note: To head off any potential questions, Naruto's Sage Mode is basically a bastardized, "narrower" version of Wood Release, meaning that it works through nature: trees, plants, etc. So you could see something like him growing a forest, but you won't see giant wooden dragons/1,000-armed deities. Hopefully you liked how I tweaked canon's natural energy/senjutsu into this world.

Until the next chapter. Feel free to let me know what you thought of this one, and let me know if you have any questions.