When the rules impede your progress, do you live within the confines of them, or do you seek a path to break them?
"Mommy, why are we out here?"
"It's a surprise. You like surprises, right?"
Twenty feet above them, Naruto watched the exchange from the branch of an oak tree. Ino seemed every bit the doting mother, walking with Inojin's right hand clasped with her left, head tilting subtly and eyes shifting furtively to check the surroundings for any impending danger.
From his own sweep, Naruto already knew the area was clear, but he could appreciate her paranoia. Whether it was caused more by him or being caught by some Konoha-nin, the blond didn't know, but the fact that she'd even showed up amazed him on its own. Over the past couple days, he'd been waiting for her to renege on their deal in some fashion, whether by simply not following through or by sending Leaf shinobi to find him.
But here she was, nary another Konoha-nin in sight, in spite of all her misgivings about him.
Well, here goes nothing.
He dropped off the branch, landing in some fallen leaves with a crunch. Inojin visibly flinched at his appearance, though he shook it off with a breathy, "Whoaaa…"
"Inojin," Ino began with forced geniality, "this is your father."
His son's blue eyes, inherited from his mother, went so wide the Jinchūriki found it almost comical. "Really?!"
Naruto kneeled to make eye contact with his son, smiling gently at the boy. "Hey."
"How come you've been gone?"
Naruto winced at the question, laced with enough innocence and a tinge of melancholy that he couldn't help but feel a pang of remorse for his decision. "I, uh…"
"He's been watching over Konoha from afar," Ino interjected. "Your father is an important, powerful shinobi."
Inojin's eyes were once again alight with admiration. Naruto shot his fellow blonde a grateful look, starting slightly when her stiff [You're welcome] filled his head. Telepathy? he wondered, before turning his attention back to his son. "Yeah. Top secret stuff. Wanna see something cool?" he prompted before the boy could ask any other awkward questions. When Inojin nodded so vigorously that the Jinchūriki expected his head to wobble off, Naruto pulled a tiny seed from his pocket and held it up for his son to see. "See this? Okay, now watch."
He walked 10 feet away and then used his thumb to create a small divot in the loose dirt before placing the seed in it, covering it, and gently tamping it down. Then, with one hand palm-down to the earth, he summoned the forest's natural energy to him, breathing in the odor of woody foliage as his senses sharpened. He allowed that power to flow through him and into the seed, filling it with the growth of its brethren.
A sprout appeared slowly, unfurling from the earth like a sleeper rising from bed. He heard Inojin release an awed exhale from beside him, and with his heightened awareness, sensed even Ino taking a curious step forward, seeking a better vantage point. When the fledgling tree had reached a mere three feet in height, Naruto stopped channeling natural energy and allowed the newborn plant to fall into its natural growth cycle.
Naruto grinned to himself, suddenly proud for seemingly no reason he could name, before turning to face his son. "Right? Everyone starts small, but given time, even something small can turn into something big. One day, this little guy will look like that," he finished, thumbing in turn towards the tree he'd grown and then a 150-foot kapok tree nearby.
"I told you your father's powerful," Ino commented. "He can grow trees. Do you know who else could do that?"
Inojin's brow furrowed together in thought, and the expression was so familiar that Naruto had to force himself to stifle his amused chuckle. "The Shodai!" he finally declared.
"You're pretty smart, huh?" Naruto posed. "I wouldn't've known that at your age."
"He's definitely a quicker study than you." [Not that that's saying much] Ino added telepathically.
Naruto shot her a half-grin; it felt a little like old times, with Ino's sass having a more playful than biting edge to it. Returning his attention to Inojin, he asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A shinobi!" he proclaimed. "Like you and Mommy!"
"Oh yeah? You know what the most important part of being a shinobi is?"
[Naruto…] Ino warned, the edge back in her mental voice.
The younger blond seemed to give it a moment of thought, shaking his head when he ultimately concluded that he didn't. "It's to find your own path," Naruto answered, tousling his son's already messy hair and earning a laugh in response. A smile stretched unbidden across his lips at how much joy that simple gesture brought the boy. "Just be true to who you are." Rising to his feet, he continued, "Maybe one day you'll be as strong as me. Then no one can tell you what to do…not even your mom," he whispered conspiratorially.
"Alright Inojin, I need to talk to your father before he leaves." Naruto almost protested that he didn't have anywhere to be, but Ino's tone and body language stayed his tongue. "Say goodbye."
"Awww…okaaay…" Small arms wrapped tight around Naruto's legs, and the Jinchūriki felt a semi-familiar pang in his chest. "Bye, Daddy!" Then Inojin looked up at him with wide, baby blue eyes. "Will you come back?"
Naruto could feel a second, more piercing, set of blue eyes watching him, scrutinizing his pending answer, as if daring him to disappoint their child. And for once, the blond felt that he understood what it meant to truly care about something – or someone – other than himself. Where he was jaded and selfish, where Ino was judgmental and overbearing, Inojin was innocence and naiveté epitomized. He held no enmity for the Jinchūriki, no preconceived notions positive or negative, just hope and excitement to get to know and be around him.
He'd wondered for so long what it would be like to have a family, people who cared about him unconditionally, and now that was no longer a hypothetical, and it felt…good. Strange, unfamiliar…yet pleasant, a long-buried idea that was finally being recognized. It didn't change how he felt about Konoha or the people in it or even the path he'd chosen, but it definitely gave him pause with respect to his next course of action.
His brain had been wired by Zetsu to notice those pauses and analyze them, and Naruto would admit to being curious as to where this new connection could lead.
He blinked, the moment in time frozen by two sets of baby blue eyes suddenly broken. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll be back."
Inojin's beatific smile caused another upswell of sentiment in Naruto's chest, the younger blond cheering in unbridled joy. Ino stepped up then, grabbing the Jinchūriki by the elbow and hauling him out of their son's earshot while announcing in a raised voice, "Stay there, Inojin, I'll be right back." When she deemed they were far enough away, she released her grip and crossed her arms over her chest. "That was…kind of you," she conceded.
"I'm not a monster."
"No, you just learned from one."
Naruto shoved down the flicker of annoyance at Ino's snark. "Thanks. For covering for me. I know it can't be easy to lie for me—"
"No, it's not," Ino interjected curtly. She looked like she wanted to add something more, but then decided against it and said instead, "So, you can use Mokuton. That's…impressive. How?"
"It's not Mokuton. It's just natural energy." Ino's raised eyebrow made him realize that most people wouldn't understand that, so Naruto added, "Plants are alive. They have chakra. Kinda. I use that chakra. Got it?"
"Makes about as much sense as anything else." She was quiet for a moment before continuing, "I can tell you still hate being here, in Konoha, but…did you mean what you said? About coming back to see him?"
"Yeah. He kinda makes you want to go out of your way for him."
"Kids are like that," was the flat response. "If you're lucky, maybe you'll understand that one day."
The venom in that single statement was so subtle, so toxic, that Naruto wished he could bottle it and add it to his collection. Ino was still bitter about his decision, of that there was no question. And the sad part was, in trying to be honest to earn just a smidgen of redemption, he'd placed himself over a barrel, and she knew it.
Then the Yamanaka released a sigh so heavy with mixed emotions that Naruto couldn't decipher what she was thinking. "Fine then. But you owe me first."
Naruto breathed his own sigh. "Yeah, a deal's a deal. So whatcha need?"
Ino shot him a small, twisted grin that came off as more of a grimace. "You're not going to like it."
What else is new?
"Oh good, you're here. Just what I needed."
"He doesn't sound very sincere. You think?"
"Look Zetsu, I'm kinda in the middle of something here, so if you don't mind—"
"You're running errands for the blonde temptress, we know. How come?"
"It was part of our agreement. I get to see my son, but I have to do her a favor."
Black Zetsu scoffed. "Fool. You reap what you sow. Why don't you just not do it?"
"Because she'll know if I don't, and I'd like to see Inojin again. My son," he clarified at Zetsu's perplexed expression.
"Stupid name," Black Zetsu muttered. To Naruto, White Zetsu asked, "Why?"
The blond didn't reply right away, searching instead for the best answer to that question. Finally, he said, "There's something about him…I feel a connection to him, and I want to explore that. It's new, and interesting, and that's what you've always told me to try. Is that so wrong?" he asked thoughtlessly, and as soon as the words left his mouth, he knew they were a mistake.
"If you think this isn't the precursor to suckering you into returning to Konoha, you're a fool. You worked so hard to escape, Naruto-kun, is returning what you really want? First it'll be your attachment to the boy, then it'll be an affinity for the blonde, and then you'll just be another shinobi of the village. Your emotions will be your death."
"Oh, puh-lease, spare me the lecture. You're a filthy hypocrite."
"What are you—"
"All you've done since you've met me is go on about independence, but if that's so true, why did you ever save my life back in the Land of Waves, huh?"
"You weren't prepared to defend yourself—"
"Then by your own creed, you should've let me die," Naruto asserted. "But you didn't, and ever since, you've hung around, teaching me things, watching over me, doing me favors with no benefit to yourself, even as you've justified it as 'having fun' or something equally ridiculous. You wanted to see who I'd grow up to be and what I'd do; that's why you told me about Inojin in the first place. You may pretend you don't, but you actually care about me in some weird way, and whether or not that's been your primary motivator, you have since I started learning from you.
"But you're somehow missing the bigger picture. We had no connection, and I still wanted to learn from you. Now imagine the potential if we'd met and I had a hero complex for you. Or you'd been someone I'd spent years wanting to meet, and suddenly you showed up. Don't you think I'd hang on to every word you said, soak up every lesson you had to offer?"
Zetsu was silent for a moment, whether because he was taken aback at the Jinchūriki's diatribe or because he didn't have a clever response already lined up, Naruto didn't know. When he did speak, it was the most unsure he'd ever sounded. "You're…manipulating them?"
Naruto shrugged. "What I feel around Inojin is real. And it's…humanizing." That was the real crux, he realized suddenly. When he'd been in Konoha, he'd been so ostracized that he'd never felt human. Zetsu had never demonized him, but he'd also never treated the blond as more than a project of sorts, and Naruto had taken each lesson and integrated it into his personal philosophy like a machine. Even his life as a renegade had forced him to detach himself from society in order to stay above it all. The only time he'd ever felt like a person, a true human with emotional capacity, had been when he'd been with Team Ten or Tenten, and even he couldn't deny that those times had been fun; they were, after all, the only allures he'd had to staying in Konoha. Being around Inojin was nostalgic, a reminder of who he'd been when he'd let go of his machinations. He shook off the epiphany and continued, "I'd like to see what happens next. But it's not gonna magically change everything I've been through, or how I feel about everyone else. And if I can teach him to think for himself and not get trapped by Konoha's ideals, don't you think it's worth it to try? You did when it was me."
Deep, throaty laughter emanated from Zetsu's dark side. "Your ingenuity is truly impressive at times. I applaud your audacity. However, you do realize you have an uphill battle with the blonde, right?"
"I'm not hinging my beliefs on whether this works. What will be will be, you know?"
"So you're not gonna cry if it doesn't go the way you want?"
Naruto shot him a flat look. "Doubt it. I don't know how I'll feel if it ends, but I assume I'll be able to move on. In the meantime, I'll do what's asked of me, provided it's doable."
"You're very dedicated, Naruto-kun. It's very admirable."
"Yeah…" he drawled, unsure of the sincerity of his mentor's words, "thanks. Anyway, I should, you know…get to work on this."
"Gotcha! We'll be watching."
"Of course you will," Naruto muttered.
"One last word of advice: watch your step. Slippery slopes such as this have a tendency to make one lose their footing. And once you're unstable, poh!" White Zetsu finished, puffing a breath to imitate blowing someone over. "It's bye-bye from there! You'll end up like us." And with that cryptic warning, he was gone.
Naruto pondered the former Kusa-nin's parting words as he continued his vigilance. He'd never gotten the story of how Zetsu had come to possess his unique physiology, just vague, snippy commentary, but that final warning had the same air of personal experience attached to it that the plant-man had used to create his self-reliance philosophy.
The problem was that the blond already was like the plant-man, barring the obvious lack of physical similarities. While his personality didn't have the same serious-versus-playful dichotomy Zetsu's did, Naruto had struggled with doing what was right and doing what he wanted for years, teetering precariously on the precipice more often than he cared to admit. Morality and sentiment had given him strong reasons to protect the likes of Ino, Shikamaru, Chōji, and Tenten for years, even as protecting them had helped him along the way.
It brought to mind the question of whether there were truly any selfless acts. Or, alternatively, if any of the selfish choices he'd made hadn't also been boons for others. After all, in manipulating and connecting with Gaara over the years to further his own agenda, he'd given the Ichibi Jinchūriki his own freedom, the opportunity to live his own life. In leaving Konoha to pursue his goals, he'd relieved the village of Akatsuki's threat, easing the minds of the people who seemed to hate him and feared another recurrence of the Kyūbi attack.
In making herbal remedies to support his own livelihood, he was healing the maladies of others, and by wanting to connect with his son, he was aiding Konoha.
He shook his head to rid himself of the thought. If he followed that logic, he would end up lost in endless rabbit holes, analyzing every action he'd ever taken and every action he could take moving forward to determine the hypothetical pros and cons for both himself and anyone he interacted with.
Firmly decided on not revisiting every nook and cranny of his life, Naruto returned to the task at hand. Konoha Hospital loomed ahead, most windows dark as the surrounding night. The few that were lit were likely hallways or breakrooms for the evening shift; the blond couldn't imagine performing surgery so late at night.
With a resigned sigh, he disappeared into the ground and traveled towards the hospital, transitioning from the earth to the building's concrete walls. Cautiously, he began to explore each of the rooms, poking his face out at discrete locations to scan his surroundings. Four (sleeping) patients' bedrooms, an operating room, and a bathroom later, Naruto began to wonder how long it was going to take to find what he was looking for.
After another two bedrooms and a storage closet, the blond finally lucked into a breakroom. One nurse appeared to be napping in an armchair, and another was making himself something to drink. Naruto didn't blame them – pulling the graveyard shift seemed like a thankless job.
He went through the hand signs for the Dokugiri and expelled a cloud of sleeping gas into the room. Within seconds, the conscious nurse was slumped on the floor, his spilled drink a puddle beside him. Damn it all…
He'd have to deal with it later. In the meantime, he approached the nurse in the armchair and injected her with an antidote to the sleeping gas. When the woman gasped to wakefulness, Naruto blew a palmful of Devil's Breath powder into her face. Her eyelids drooped to half-mast and her body slumped further into the furniture, a boneless slouch. Now, he mused, what do I ask? Quietly, so as to not break the hospital's atmosphere, he asked, "What village do you belong to?"
"Konoha," intoned the nurse.
Hmm…can you deceive yourself into believing that? "Who do you serve?"
"Who trained you?"
Naruto tried to think of another question to ask to prove the woman was actually a spy and came up short. "Go back to sleep," he murmured. The powder he'd used was mixed with a small dose of psychotropics, so each of his interviewees would think they'd hallucinated him, if they remembered the encounter at all.
The woman dropped off, and Naruto moved on to the male nurse, going through the same drug-and-question routine. None of the answers changed, and after ordering him to clean up the spilled tea and change his stained clothes before returning to his duties, the blond melded back into the hospital's walls.
Naruto managed to intercept and interrogate four other nurses over the course of the next two hours, but none of them gave any different responses to his three questions. Between the effects of the drugs and the repetitive answers, the Jinchūriki was starting to feel like he'd infiltrated a cult. Considering how villages indoctrinated their shinobi, the idea probably wasn't too far-fetched.
This plan isn't going to work. Not only would it take far too long to interview every worker at the hospital, especially considering the various shifts and schedules, but the longer he stayed, the more risk he was at of being discovered. Not only that, but the phrasing of his third question had started to give him pause. He'd borne witness to both Tsunade's personality and training firsthand; there wouldn't be anyone working at the hospital who she wouldn't have trained, or at least approved of after rigorous testing. If there really was a spy from the Hidden Rain among the medical staff, he or she would've had to be in Konoha long enough to either go through the medical program or have already been proficient enough at healing to pass Tsunade's stringent requirements.
What if he doesn't heal?
Hospitals had plenty of administrative staff, and it would be far easier to go unnoticed if your job was to push paperwork rather than heal. Plus, if the goal was to learn about Konoha's shinobi, what better way was there than to have access to years of medical records documenting physical fitness, mental well-being, maybe even clan-specific medical issues or sensitivities?
There's gotta be a basement or something where they keep all that stuff, he thought, melding through the floor and aiming for the structure's foundation.
As it turned out, there was a basement, and it ended up being better lit than Naruto was expecting. The long white hallway was almost blinding compared to how dark most of the hospital was, locked doors with placards describing what was hidden beyond lining both sides.
Naruto read each placard from his position within the ceiling, eventually finding the records room and moving towards it. A quick peek inside revealed all the lights turned on and the sound of rustling papers from one corner of the room. Hmm…
The source of the noise was a woman in her early 20s, by the blond's estimate. She was pretty in a plain sort of way, he supposed, with no real memorable physical characteristics – a perfect spy.
He was startled when she looked up at him, a hard expression in her dark eyes. Sensor-type! Dropping to the floor allowed him to avoid the kunai thrown at his head, and she rushed forward to engage him in combat while he was still in a crouch. Another activation of the Shinra Banshō saw her kick sailing over him as he sank into the floor, and he quickly rose back up to take advantage of her surprise. He grabbed her other leg and pulled, bringing her to the floor with a grunt. One pinprick of a senbon and she was paralyzed where she lay.
Naruto let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding, waiting in the silence for any indication the tussle had been discovered. When several minutes passed with no further incident, he withdrew a handful of Devil's Breath powder and a jar containing an anti-paralytic from his stash. He blew the powder into the woman's face and then applied the anti-paralytic. "Alright, what village do you belong to?"
Naruto felt a great sense of accomplishment swell in his chest, and couldn't resist the victorious "Yeesss" that escaped his lips. "And who do you serve?"
The woman appeared to struggle for a brief moment before responding, "Pein-sama."
"Who the hell is Pein-sama?" Naruto wondered aloud. Last he'd heard, Ame was under the strict control of Hanzō the Salamander.
"Our savior," replied the Ame-nin.
"I wasn't—never mind." He knocked her out, grateful that his hunch had worked out. His task done, he turned his attention to the records the spy had been rooting through, skimming through the paperwork and then setting it aside, uninterested in the histories of random Konoha-nin. While I'm down here… He began wandering the room's aisles, peering at any available labels to try to determine how the information was organized.
After almost an hour of searching, Naruto was about ready to tear his hair out. There were just too many records for too many people, and to the uninformed, the organization felt very haphazard. Finding his own records seemed an impossible task, assuming, of course, they even existed anymore. After all, Konoha presumed him dead, so what point was there in keeping a dead man's history? And that wasn't even taking into account his status as a Jinchūriki, which probably wasn't available to the hospital staff.
It was beyond frustrating that the only thing he wanted from the Hidden Leaf – the answer to his lineage, and whether he truly was the son of the Yondaime – was beyond his reach. Unless he devoted far more time than he had (and thus risked discovery by Konoha), it seemed a definite answer to his query would continue to elude him.
Miffed and dour, Naruto hoisted the unconscious Ame-nin over his shoulder and left the hospital with the Attack Prevention Technique. With frequent peeks to the outside world to guide his path, he made his way to Ino's home, rising up through the exterior wall and poking his head into Ino's room. "Hey, Ino—" he whispered, "—oh, you're awake."
The platinum blonde was standing in the middle of her room with her hands raised to use one of her clan's patented mental techniques. "Naruto!" she hissed, blue eyes narrowed in fury. "What the hell do you think you're doing? It's four in the morning!"
"Best time to spy," he told her, stepping out into the room. "Speaking of which—" he unceremoniously dropped the Ame-nin on Ino's vacated bed, "—here you go."
"What the hell? Who is this? Did you kidnap her?!"
"The hospital spy you asked for. I thought that was obvious."
"It's four in the morning," Ino reiterated through gritted teeth, "and I was sleeping. Like a normal person. Excuse me for needing a moment!"
"You're excused." Ino shot him an icy glare, trying to impress upon him her lack of amusement. Naruto shrugged, and when she gave up on trying to intimidate him, he watched his former friend run pale fingers through blonde locks and then rub tiredly at her eyes. In that moment, she looked older than he remembered, even considering that they were, in fact, older. Suddenly uncomfortable with how different they were, he angled his body away from her and said, "Well, I'm outta here."
"And where do you think you're going?" Ino demanded.
"Following up on something. I don't like not knowing something."
"Not knowing what?" came Ino's hot reply. "And what the hell am I supposed to do with her?" she asked, gesturing towards the bed.
Naruto was already stepping back into the wall as he answered, "You're smart, you'll figure something out. I'll be in touch." At the blonde's annoyed scoff, he paused, turning so that his head – now the only visible part of him – was facing her. "Hey…tell Inojin I said 'hi'…and that I'll see him soon."
Ino's haughty expression softened at that, her crossed arms relaxing to her sides at the unexpected admission. Now she reminded him of the Ino he'd grown up with, the one who cared and worried about her teammates more than she was willing to admit. She graced him with a small, sad upturn of her lips and a brief nod, and then Naruto was gone.
There was something unnatural about the rain surrounding Amegakure. Sure, Naruto understood that being in the Land of Rain and infiltrating the Village Hidden in Rain likely meant dealing with precipitation, and the grey clouds that had loomed over his journey to the village had suggested it was a common phenomenon, but still…it was weird. Rain fell in what appeared to be a near-perfect circle around the village, which explained the moat separating the floodplains and skyscrapers.
He watched the rain from afar for a time, wondering at the best strategy to avoid what seemed like an obvious trap while still getting inside the village.
And then it stopped.
Blue eyes blinked in surprise, as if to confirm what he was seeing was real. He half-expected the skies to clear to reveal a bright sun and beautiful rainbow, as portrayed in the movies, and grunted to himself when nothing of the sort happened. The sky was still grey and cloudy, the path ahead was still water, but now the air was clear of moisture.
…Still feels like a trap.
He heaved a sigh and jumped down from his perch, taking tentative steps towards the moat's edge and eventually upon the water itself. When nothing immediately happened, he walked forward with more confidence, making his way to the village at the moat's center.
Nearing the water's interior edge revealed a great metal wall towering over him that had been hidden by the country's haze. Naruto rolled his eyes. Like it wasn't difficult enough to get inside already. Standing in its shadow, he craned his neck backwards in an attempt to gauge its height. Over? Or under? he mused, glancing at the water beneath him. Or neither.
Subverting both, Naruto spread his chakra into the wall and stepped into it with the Attack Prevention Technique. Moving through the metal was quick work, and when he approached the other side, he stuck his face through to get a glimpse of the village.
Darkness greeted him. He allowed several seconds for his eyes to adjust and realized that a building was blocking his view, pipes and other metallic appurtenances he couldn't identify littering the alley he found himself in. One of the structures belched steam in his face, and the humidity warmed his clammy skin. Between the frigid metal and the chilly climate, he was just now realizing how cold it was.
Naruto stepped out from the confines of the wall, hunkering down beside the building. A brief attempt to draw on any nearby natural energy to get an idea of where people were located revealed nothing, and he scowled to himself. The Hidden Rain was too urban for him to find any strength from the natural world in it, which meant he would have to move even more cautiously than he'd anticipated.
The blond pulled up his hoodie and strolled out of the alley onto a sparsely populated side street. Those few who were out and about seemed to ignore everyone else, walking around with heads tucked into the collars of their coats as much as physically possible. He exhaled, watching his breath coalesce into a warm cloud of air and then walking through it. This place sucks, he groused, shoving his hands in his pockets. Why anyone would stay here—
A large crowd of people passed by on the street perpendicular to his own, interrupting his internal musing on the inner workings of the Hidden Rain. Hm? A quick geographical check told him that most were walking away from the village's center. Unable to fathom what would be so attractive on the village's outskirts, he wandered against the main flow, keeping to the outside of the crowd with his head ducked.
The road eventually opened up into a town square, another metal skyscraper at its head. A short line of people stood before a stone statue that was set in the center of the town square; several people in front were kneeling before the effigy, bowed before it in reverence. Naruto stayed on the fringes of the gathering, edging closer until the murmuring at the head of the crowd became distinguishable.
They were praying, he realized. Meaningless words of solace, all whispered to the monument the citizens of the Hidden Rain were prostrated before. Variations of well wishes for 'Tenshi' and 'Pein-sama' mixed with other words reached the blond's ears. "Tenshi, watch over Pein-sama" seemed to be the repeated sentiment of a large portion of the crowd.
Gleaning nothing from their sentiments, Naruto finally spared the statue his attention, curious as to who was worthy of so much respect and adoration. Judging by the hair bun, he assumed the figure was female, though the high-collared, knee-length cloak disguised much of her features. The cloud patterns on the cloak were chiseled with exquisite care—
Whatever warmth his hoodie was providing quickly dissipated as his blood turned to ice. He knew this statue…those stone eyes had been wide with shock as he'd descended upon their owner, severing head from neck.
Konan, he thought, mind tumultuous as he turned away from the statue and strode towards the village's outskirts as quickly as he could without arousing suspicion. She's Tenshi…and she's Akatsuki…and Ame is worshipping her…and Pein…which means Pein must also be connected to Akatsuki. And Ame is infiltrating Konoha because…because…
They're trying to flush me out.
He phased through the metal wall and hastened his speed to a sprint across the water, his flight mimicking the rapid-pace firing of his thoughts. Once he reached the trees that merged into the Land of Fire, he could race towards Konoha with the Shinra Banshō.
Even as he thought it, even as he ran at breakneck speed across the water's surface for the warm embrace of the woods, he wondered why he was going back. Sentimentality, Zetsu would call it, before rattling off any other number of synonyms that basically amounted to Naruto being an idiot. And, admittedly, rushing towards the village which had forsaken him – and vice versa – to battle an S-rank ninja whose purpose was to capture him didn't exactly disprove his mentor's assumed comments.
That the shadowy organization was plotting an invasion upon a shinobi village, let alone one of the main five, spoke volumes of its desperation. But Pein had a goal, one he'd been chasing for at least the last decade, and as Naruto had lived with a similar sense of single-mindedness for only half as long, he knew Akatsuki wouldn't rest until it got what it wanted. It was just unfortunate Akatsuki wanted him.
But, he rationalized, this opportunity was almost too good to pass up. There was no telling how many members still comprised the organization, and his previous skirmishes with them had proven direct confrontation was messy. This time, however, Konoha was their most immediate target, and the shinobi there could serve as enough of a distraction that Naruto could take advantage of the situation.
Based on his past experiences, it was the most prudent move. At least, that's what he told himself as he reached the trees and felt the warm embrace of the greenery. There was a flicker of some instinctive need to protect that which was a part of him, and he withdrew the seed which allowed him to "communicate" with Ino even as he sank into the earth and let a different set of instincts take over.
Natural energy coursed through the seed and towards its twin in Konoha. After several seconds, the seed split, a tiny sprout tickling the inside of his clenched fist. Naruto immediately cut off the flow of natural energy, cursing his lack of wherewithal; unbidden, he'd overwhelmed the seed and lost any hope of transmitting any further urgency to Ino.
As he released his grip on the now-useless seedling, it occurred to the blond that, over 20 years prior, his father must have gone through some echo of what he was currently experiencing. The race to face an enemy who was rumored to be vastly superior, while simultaneously protecting a life he was connected to…it was as similar to the Yondaime as he'd ever felt, barring the physical resemblance.
Granted, the Yondaime had faced down a literal demon, and Naruto was preparing to fight a man (albeit a very powerful man who was specifically targeting the blond), but regardless, the scenario was uncanny. If believing in Neji's idea of fate wasn't anathema to his very being, the Jinchūriki might have considered himself an ironic pawn, manipulated to make some higher deity laugh. As it was, he needed his wits about him to not meet his father's fate.
With that resolve in mind, he took a deep breath and attempted to regain control over his emotional equilibrium, but too many questions continued to plague him. Why was Akatsuki making a move now? Did they get Gaara? How many people would he have to fight to be free of the organization? Did they not know that he wasn't part of Konoha anymore?
Every mile he traveled was filled with another slew of unanswered queries and half-formed plans. Predominant among them was the idea that he was walking straight into the lion's den, a scenario he'd spent years avoiding, and what was he thinking?!
Following that came a number of potential battle strategies for what he might face, which he focused on with intense gratitude. Anything to take his mind off the fact that he was a filthy hypocrite and he'd done a terrible job of following his own creed, all to explore something he'd never had but always wanted. It was new, and exciting, and deserved a chance, because he didn't have the experience to make a justified opinion, and there was something in those moments interacting with people who cared about him that made him feel human—
Shut up shut up SHUT UP!
He cursed repetitively in his mind to fill the silence and stop the questions, finding enough irritation at himself to fill the rest of the journey. When he guessed that he'd gotten close enough, he spread his chakra out to the surrounding network of roots, analyzing everything he could with the Green Sight Technique.
The input nearly blinded him. Huge masses of chakra, indistinguishable from each other, were gathered above and far away from him – Konoha, he assumed, either preparing a defense or already in the midst of a counterattack. Small clusters spread throughout the village contrasted the significantly larger conglomeration at the center, and Naruto wondered at the size of Akatsuki's forces that they seemed to be causing so much trouble.
Not my problem. He wasn't interested in helping Konoha, of diving into the middle of a war which would only serve to distract and confuse him. He had a goal. Focus.
There. On the outskirts, in the middle of a lush field, was a sole chakra source. Either that was Pein, the general overseeing his troops from afar, or Konoha had been training its shinobi shoddily since he'd disappeared.
He made a beeline for that signature, and when he was in its range, began gathering more natural energy. Take this, asshole, he thought, dispersing the collected chakra into the field. Senpō: Kusanagi!
Though he couldn't see it, he could feel the grass above grow rigid and long, turning what was probably a training field into a five-foot tall turf of green skewers. A quick check with the Green Sight Technique showed the chakra signature still present, still unmoved, though if it had been a person, the chakra should've disappeared with his life. Naruto's brow furrowed in confusion.
Then he heard the voice, and his blood ran cold.
"Keh heh heh, so you finally showed up, eh? Good. I was gettin' bored waiting."
It wasn't Pein, but in some way, hearing Kisame above him was even worse. The memory of his prior failure to beat the blue-skinned shinobi surfaced, a stark reminder of just how out of his depth he was; his mind began to scream at him for his stupidity, and he released his hold on the Grass Cutter technique with the intention of moving away—
"I know you're there, Kyūbi. Samehada doesn't forget a chakra like yours. If you won't come out to play, I guess I'll just have to make you! Suiton: Chika Haru!"
The sound of rushing water distracted the blond from his grand escape plan right before the earth he was melded with flooded. Concentration broken, he lost hold of the Attack Prevention Technique, but at that point, the rising water had broken the surface in a geyser, and Naruto heaved a great gasp of air, dirt, and water. He dropped to the ground with a squelch, mud plastered across his face and clothes, then pushed himself to a standing position and spat. "Yech."
"No distractions this time, Kyūbi," Kisame called. "Just you and me."
False bravado had Naruto opening his arms in a gesture of welcome, commenting, "And here you are, allowing me to recover."
The former Kiri-nin laughed. Naruto cringed at the cruelty that rang with his mirth. "Where's the fun in beating a broken target? I want you on your feet when we fight, so I can watch you fall when I cut off your legs. Besides, waiting for you has been painful…I want to make sure you know what I've felt!"
He rushed Naruto then, Samehada's hilt gripped in his hand. The blond had just enough time to summon natural energy from the surrounding grass and extend the bamboo hidden in his sleeves. Kisame's sword was stopped inches from his side, held away by the unyielding plants. The Akatsuki-nin grinned at him, and Naruto grimaced in return, straining to hold his ground under the strength of the huge sword and larger man. "Heheheh, so you've got a couple of new tricks, eh?"
"Fuck…you!" Naruto growled, tapping into the natural energy around him and throwing it once more into the grass. "Senpō: Kusanagi!"
Blades of grass lanced through Kisame's legs, and the taller shinobi swung his sword downward, using its bulk to shred the greenery. Naruto grabbed one of the torn pieces of grass and brought it to his lips. Senpō: Kusabue!
A buzzing, haunting melody reverberated from between the blond's lips. It evened out into a somber dirge, Kisame's muscles slackening the longer he hummed. The Sage Art: Grasswhistle technique was one of Naruto's two genjutsu techniques, and while it worked best when enacted from afar (with his presence hidden), he was honestly happy it was working at all, given the impulse he'd enacted it with; Kisame seemed like the type who would just muscle through any sort of relaxing hallucination.
While the shark-like shinobi was entranced, Naruto extended the bamboo over his right hand and punched towards his enemy's throat.
Samehada bent impossibly, blocking the attack. Blue eyes widened in shock. "What the—uhn!"
"Heheh, nice try, Kyūbi, but you're not gonna get me like that with Samehada around."
Naruto got up from where he'd been kicked, groaning as his stomach protested the movement. Stupid bastard…that sword is ridiculous.
"Suiton: Bakusui Shōha!"
A deluge of water escaped the Akatsuki-nin's mouth and formed into a series of massive waves. Naruto released the natural energy he'd gathered and broke off the extra bamboo, allowing his hands freedom to move through seals. "Fūton: Arashinome!"
Wind enveloped him in a protective sphere just in time for the Exploding Water Colliding Wave to break over him. He forced more chakra into the technique, whipping the makeshift shield into a frenzied zephyr to counteract the crushing torrent.
Then a giant shark formed from water slammed into the Storm's Eye technique at full speed, and the force was enough to send Naruto careening into the center of the tsunami. He pulled the surrounding winds tighter around himself and then released it all in a burst of energy. Fūton: Kakudai Kiri!
Water exploded from around him like a burst balloon only to rain down in a cold shower. Naruto could feel rivulets running down his face and neck; it was almost refreshing, if he wasn't counting its source.
Naruto screamed as Samehada shredded his side, each scale of its unbandaged form tearing through his skin. He unleashed a reactionary burst of wind that sent Kisame skidding backwards, instinctively placing a hand over the wound to stifle the pain. Distantly, he registered the former Kiri-nin's laughter. Through the haze of pain, he summoned enough energy to expel a smoky Dokugiri, shrouding the area in thick cover.
Kisame continued to laugh. "I told you, you can't hide from me. And now that Samehada's got a taste, it's gonna suck you dry."
Just need a moment… Reaching behind him, the blond unhooked a vial attached to his waist, uncorking it deftly and letting several seeds stored inside drop out.
He stoppered the vial with the pad of his thumb just as Kisame's voice called out, "Suiton: Dai Bakusui Shōha!"
Water flooded the area, sending him tumbling end over end. Something large rammed into him, and Naruto fought to hold what little breath he had collected, more seeds spilling out as he was swirled around. When he managed to orient himself and see what had hit him, he had to remind himself not to open his mouth in horror.
What could only be described as a hybrid shark-man floated before him. Greyish-blue skin covered a muscled body with humanoid limbs, large fins growing backwards from the creature's elbows. An even larger dorsal fin stretched from its head, and a thick tail sprouted from its back; fingers and toes appeared to have morphed into claws, webbing taking up the space between each digit. Sharp teeth displaying Kisame's telltale smirk brought back the full memory of his first encounter with the Akatsuki-nin and how he'd easily overwhelmed his and Aka's team-up.
Naruto failed to repress the shiver of apprehension that jolted through his body.
As if sensing his fear, Kisame charged again, and Naruto unleashed a torrent of wind from his free palm in his enemy's direction. The shark-man was undeterred by the assault, allowing it to break across his face without slowing down, and Naruto barely managed to change tactics in time, aiming his palm straight up to propel himself closer to the ground. He could feel the water shift as Kisame's hand came within an inch of grabbing him.
He activated the Violent Wind Palm once more to propel himself up, and again, he could feel the motion of the water as Kisame barely missed him. More chakra increased the Reppūshō's output, sending Naruto rocketing up. He was forced to continuously adjust his path as Kisame attempted to capture him – though it occurred to the Jinchūriki that the ex-Mist shinobi was simply just toying with him – zigzagging haphazardly until he finally broke through the surface.
The air felt invigorating on his face and in his lungs, and he mentally thanked Asuma for the deep breathing lessons. Using the Kaze Nagare to levitate in midair and catch his breath, the blond could see that his enemy had trapped him in a dome of water, reminding him yet again of when he'd abandoned Aka. It was a testament to the shark-man's strength that he could shape and hold such a monstrosity, let alone summon the requisite water in the first place.
As he watched, the dome appeared to shift, its liquid mass growing taller as its diameter receded. Naruto adjusted his propulsion to the left, and the fluid followed, reaching up to submerge him in its depths. It can move?! What kinda jutsu is this?
Muscular arms suddenly wrapped around his body, locking his arms to his side. WHAT?!
"Heheheh, gotcha now!"
Naruto managed to tilt his head, horror-stricken to find Kisame's shark-like face leering at him over his shoulder. The Wind Stream technique petered out as the Akatsuki-nin – who had apparently jumped out of the watery dome to grab him – siphoned off his chakra. Sharp teeth buried themselves deep in his left shoulder.
His scream turned into a gargle as the pair splashed into water, Kisame dragging him into the dome's depths. He began to feel lightheaded, whether from being drowned or his chakra being taken, he couldn't tell. Loose fingers released the vial he'd been holding, blue eyes blearily watching as it sank alongside him. …Damn it…not gonna…die…here…
He closed his eyes, focusing instead on the green life that comprised the training area and beyond, the namesake of the village he'd once called home. Natural energy flowed through him, a steady thrum of brightness which Kisame seemed unable to either detect or absorb. With renewed strength and increasing desperation, he mentally felt for the seeds scattered across the ground in his swimming escapades and used that energy to push them into a new growth cycle.
Blue eyes snapped open, the dark patterns of his sage status rimming them. Senpō: Haru Seichō no Jutsu!
The seeds burst to life, months of growth occurring in seconds. Fledgling sequoias sprouted at his command, treetops with full foliage forming with aid from rich soil and an abundance of water. Naruto felt himself rolled over in Kisame's grasp several times as the shark-man dodged the growing trees.
Then a lucky branch sprouted, spearing the swordsman through his left flank and forcing him to momentarily release his grip. The blond remained still, focused on the Spring's Growth Technique, as a canopy rose up beneath him, cushioning his rise through the surface of the watery dome.
Sitting upright, Naruto hacked up the water he'd inhaled and looked about, admiring the towering trees still growing around him. He glanced over the side of the treetop, searching for a sign of Kisame, but the shark-man was nowhere to be seen.
With the sun shining down and even more plant life to supply him with natural energy, the Jinchūriki clambered to his feet with renewed confidence, reaching further for all the seeds that hadn't yet grown. "Eat this, bastard!" he bellowed, pushing beyond the Spring's Growth Technique. "SENPŌ: JUKAI KŌTAN!"
Roots and branches exploded to life from within the crevices of the already-grown trees as the Nativity of a World of Trees technique took effect. These were the beginnings of banyan trees, which formed by taking over a host tree and growing extensive, thick root networks down towards the ground in search of soil and water.
And thanks to Kisame, water was bountiful.
The banyan trees continued to grow at an accelerated rate, trunks doubling and tripling in size, with long, spindly roots plunging to the depths of the liquid dome. Soon enough, his homegrown forest of trees covered the expanse of Kisame's water technique, an amalgamation of the battlers' specialties.
A massive shark comprised entirely of water broke the dome's surface, maw open wide to swallow the blond where he stood. Naruto raised an arm towards it, palm out, and uttered, "Senpō: Ha no Arashi." The leaves of the branch above him detached and flew at the giant fish, their razor-sharp edges shredding its form. Three more sharks attempted the same tactic only to meet the same fate.
With each destroyed shark, Naruto felt himself slowly growing more anxious. Both he and Kisame were understandably determined to fight in the environment that gave them their respective edge, and even his encroachment into the shark-man's territory wasn't serving as a deterrent. I'll just have to take over completely. He reached for a pocket of his pants and pulled out a storage scroll; despite being soaked, channeling chakra into it still summoned a mass of seaweed harvested from the Land of Water. It dropped to the water and floated on the surface, a tiny dot in a veritable lake.
"Suiton: Daikōdan no Jutsu!"
Naruto whipped around, eyes widening in horror. The sizes of the previous shark attacks were pitiful compared to the monstrosity that roared towards him. It ripped through trees like they were toothpicks, ravaging the forest and leaving fallen timber in its wake. His body spasmed as the flora was destroyed, gasping in confusion at the sudden pain wracking his body. Unable to move, the blond was swallowed whole by the beast, which carried him back into the dome Kisame was determined to drown him in.
He could feel the strength of his natural energy wane with the toppling of his makeshift forest, the unknown pain still coursing through his body. As if sensing weakness, Kisame's monstrous form appeared, speeding towards him. Not done yet, he told himself through gritted teeth, using his senjutsu in one final push. Senpō: Jukai Kōtan!
As Kisame drew close, the seaweed he'd dropped multiplied exponentially, tendrils of green twisting through the depths of the dome. Blooms of algae engulfed everything, blotting out the light and turning their surroundings into an underwater jungle.
Kisame thrashed within the sudden mass of plants, working to find a path towards the blond, but the kelp forest gave Naruto a fresh burst of energy. With renewed vigor, the Jinchūriki strengthened the underwater plants, increasing their durability and forcing them to coalesce in even tighter clumps. They smothered the shark-man, wrapping him in increasingly stronger restraints. Naruto watched as several tendrils wrapped around the Akatsuki-nin's throat, pneumatocysts – small pods growing regularly along the kelp – barely visible along their lengths.
His hands came together in what he hoped would be his final set of seals. Senpō: Tane Bakudan!
The pneumatocysts exploded with enough force to send Naruto into an uncontrolled tumble through the water, a chain reaction of reverberating booms following him as more pods detonated.
After several seconds of disorientation, Naruto realized he was no longer underwater; he was laying on a bed of seaweed in at least an inch of water spread over an area too large to even consider. Blood flowed sluggishly from a mixture of wounds inflicted by Kisame and sustained during his Sage Art: Seed Bomb technique. Kisame's jutsu fell apart…did I get him? He rolled over, coughing up water and taking in his surroundings.
Blue eyes landed on a blue-grey arm jutting up from a nearby mass of seaweed. Naruto dragged himself over, wary of tricks. When he was close enough, he toed the limb enough to reveal it had been blown off at the shoulder. Further scrutiny revealed other body parts half-buried in blooms of kelp.
When he came across the head, Naruto collapsed at the sight, relief and exhaustion flooding his tense body. "I did it… Holy shit, I actually did it."
Eyes closed in peaceful contemplation of his success, he briefly considered taking a nap in the bed of seaweed, despite the awful smell it exuded. It had been years since he'd fought an opponent anywhere near Kisame's caliber, certainly not since he'd actually learned about natural energy, and so the limitations of his sage status had never been stretched so far. And he'd felt pain while using senjutsu, which was both new and worrisome.
Not that he had much time to ruminate on it; exhausted or not, Kisame hadn't been the reason he'd come back to the Hidden Leaf.
With a groan, Naruto leveraged himself to his feet and summoned supplies to treat the worst of his injuries. He shucked his hoodie – waterlogged and shredded beyond repair – to the side to liberally apply poultices and bandages, wincing with each wound. When that was done, he carefully drew on a trace amount of natural energy to use the Midori Shiryoku, considering it a good sign when no additional pain accompanied the activation. The Green Sight Technique showed Konoha still embroiled in battle with Akatsuki's forces, chakra sources spread throughout the village…and a single chakra signature to the northwest, high in one of the country's trees. Gotcha…I hope.
Slowly, Naruto melded into the earth and moved towards the outlying chakra, gaining speed along the way. As he reacquainted himself with the network of roots that comprised the Land of Fire's forests, the blond began to feel reinvigorated, natural energy seeping into his skin from the untouched nature. He activated the Green Sight Technique once more to check his progress, pausing in surprise.
Another chakra signature – no, two chakra signatures, one on the heels of the other – were approaching his intended destination at an alarming rate. Naruto scowled to himself. Akatsuki or Konoha? he wondered. Either way, probably not good for me. But…
Naruto raced towards where the pair were headed, aiming to get ahead of the leader. It hadn't worked against Kisame, but with a new enemy came new strategies, and the element of surprise generally worked in his favor.
He surfaced from the earth just in time to see someone wearing a black cloak with red clouds descend from the treetops. You're mine! he crowed, leaping off the ground. Senpō: Sashiki no Jutsu!
The man noticed him seconds before impact, clapping his hands together as he fell.
A cloud of smoke enveloped them, and when it cleared, Naruto found the bamboo shoots of his Cutting Technique sprouting from a giant panda with fur as hard as rock. BULLSHIT!
Gravity forced them to the forest floor, where the summoned defense disappeared in another burst of smoke, giving Naruto a better look of his enemy: long orange hair held in a high ponytail (kinda like Ino, he mused); black piercings and studs implanted along his face; and strange-looking eyes that gave Zetsu's a pass at normality. "Kyūbi," spoke the man. "I knew you would come." His voice was controlled yet quiet, a storm ready to rain at a moment's notice. Strange eyes glanced to Naruto's right, where the rustling of leaves could be heard. Naruto tensed, expecting the worst and hoping for the best. "And I see you decided to follow me…Jiraiya."
"Pein!" hollered the Sannin. "You'll pay for what you—Naruto?!"
Ah shit… "Jiraiya. Been awhile. You've looked…better."
Blood stained the Sannin's clothes and dripped down his left arm, lending him a weary appearance that was further exemplified by his labored breathing. It didn't help that Jiraiya looked distinctly older than the last time Naruto had seen him, with extra warts dotting his nose and wrinkles crinkling around his eyes. The red markings that normally trailed from his eyes like tear tracks now looked like pools beneath them.
Most strange were the two small toads perched on his shoulders. Weird.
For his part, the Hokage seemed flabbergasted, staring at the blond with mouth agape. "Naruto! You're alive! Where have you been?"
"Time and place, Jiraiya," Naruto muttered, his response drowned out by the two toads debating between themselves and with Jiraiya. To the Akatsuki-nin, he asked, "I assume you're Pein?"
"No," came the reply, both hands flat on the ground. Seals swirled beneath them, releasing the now-familiar 'pop' of the Summoning Technique, and when the smoke cleared, five orange-haired figures and one bald man with black facial piercings stood before teacher and student. "We are Pein," they chorused.
Naruto got a brief glance at the collection of cloaked men before all but the ponytailed one split up to surround them. He noted where each one was with the Green Sight Technique, blue eyes fixated on the man before him. Pein brought his hands together, and the blond immediately pushed natural energy into the tree where he could sense a seventh chakra signature.
The tree trunk compressed, crushing whoever was inside—
—the ponytailed Akatsuki-nin collapsed, a puppet with its strings cut—
—Naruto Body Flickered, decapitating the falling Akatsuki-nin with a bamboo Sage Art: Leaf Cutter—
—the tree exploded in a hail of splinters—
—Naruto looked up at the sound of crunching tree bark, diving away from a downpour of wood, leaves, and, strangely, black metal. He performed a handspring, landing near Jiraiya as a person hit the ground with a grunt of pain. Beside him, the Sannin whispered, "Nagato?"
"You know this guy?" he snapped. The other five Pein reappeared, congregating around the new person and shielding his emaciated form and lanky red hair from view. "Jiraiya, what the hell is going on?"
"I…don't know," replied the Sannin. His voice was strained. "Tsunade and I were fighting the summoner, some kinda immortal, and a big guy who can use all the elements. Through Katsuyu, we know that that one can launch missiles—" he pointed to the bald one, "—and that one…" he added, emotion choking his speech even further, "…can control gravitational forces."
He was pointing at the one front-and-center, orange hair spiked in a style similar to how Naruto had once worn his. Behind him, the Akatsuki-nin with long hair rose, the fallen redhead's arms encircling his neck in a piggyback. "Two of them look like my students from long ago," the Hokage admitted quietly. Louder, the same tremor coloring his voice, he managed, "Yahiko…Nagato…what happened to you two? I heard you were dead. Where's Konan?"
"There is no more Yahiko or Nagato," answered the redhead. "There is only Pein."
"And Konan's dead," Naruto interjected. Six sets of strange eyes and Jiraiya's dark-eyed gaze swiveled towards him, the Sannin's eyes wide in shock. The redhead's tired, stoic visage was crinkled with barely contained rage. "I killed her."
The loathing in the redhead's voice was so palpable, Jiraiya was forced to swallow his comment, both he and Naruto turning their attention to the Akatsuki-nin. His hoarse timbre vibrated with a fury contrary to the unmoving expressions on the faces of the other five Peins. "I had suspected that it was you, but now that I know…your death will be even more satisfying."
The spiky-haired Pein held out his hand and uttered, "Banshō Ten'in."
Naruto felt himself pulled off his feet by an unknown force, body flying towards the Akatsuki members. Son of a bitch! he snarled internally, barely registering Jiraiya's shout of his name. His hands came together, chest puffing out as he took a deep breath. Dokugiri!
Purple gas billowed from his mouth and fell over the array of Akatsuki-nin. The long-haired Pein carrying the redhead, Nagato, jumped backwards from the Poison Gas technique; the spiky-haired Pein's hand wrapped around the blond's throat as he was pulled forward. The Jinchūriki choked as Yahiko's grip tightened. "You're mine, Kyūbi."
Even though he couldn't see it, Naruto could smell the oil and feel the heat of the fire as it cascaded towards them. Why isn't my poison working?
The heat of the fire disappeared, accompanied by a trio of voices chorusing an incredulous 'What?!'. Great. Jiraiya's useless and I can't move. How 'bout some help?
"YOU DEIGN TO SEEK HELP FROM ANOTHER? HOW NOVEL...HYPOCRITE."
Mock me or die, Kyūbi!
The fox laughed. "AS YOU WISH."
Red-orange chakra exploded from his skin and ripped through Yahiko's shoulder; Naruto dropped to the ground, the dismembered arm releasing its grip on his throat. He performed several seals and manipulated the earth beneath him, turning the ground to mud. There was a burst of smoke, and the blond sped backwards to avoid being crushed by an oversized hoof. When he looked up, a massive ox loomed overhead. "Jiraiya," he growled, timbre guttural, "what's going on? My poison isn't working, and I killed the summoner."
"The fat one absorbed my jutsu. The last one summoned some sort of demonic statue that revived the summoner."
"Great…so we're back at square one. Suggestions?"
"Not yet. Senpō: Chō Ōdama Rasengan!"
The largest orb of blue chakra Naruto had ever seen impacted the ox, sending the massive mammal hurtling backwards through the forest. The Peins leaped out of the way, each one disappearing into the foliage with the exception of the bald one. He threw off his cloak – revealing two extra faces grafted to the sides of his head, four additional arms, and a serrated steel tail that reminded the blond of Sasori – and panels all over his body opened up to fire a slew of missiles at teacher and student.
Naruto swiped at the air, his claws creating a wave of wind that cleaved the projectiles in two, exploding them prematurely. Are they all like this one? Puppets, like Sasori? Was Konan the only actual human in Akatsuki?! he screamed internally, frustration boiling over.
His chakra flared with his temper, a third tail growing out of his spine. One of the fox shroud's tails reached out, formed into a claw, and grabbed the Pein's tail as it shot out. Naruto yanked on the tail, bringing the puppet towards him, and then staggered as something solid slammed into his back. He righted himself and was promptly blown away by a massive force of air.
Naruto looked skyward and bellowed, his cry turning into a roar of rage. "PEEEIINN!"
His skin began to peel off, another tail sprouting behind him. "Naruto!" Jiraiya yelled. "Get ahold of yourself! Ma, Pa, can you find them?"
"We'll do what we can, Jiraiya-chan!"
Naruto disappeared and reappeared in front of the six-armed Pein, punching a red-black fist through the puppet's chest. Gears exploded from the Akatsuki-nin in a shower of oil, and the Jinchūriki howled his success to the heavens.
Naruto was blown off the fallen Pein and into the arms of the fat Pein. His strength immediately began to dissipate, the Kyūbi's chakra siphoned off by the orange-haired man's technique. The blond could hear the Kyūbi raging as his influence vanished, howls of how close he'd been to escaping on repeat in his mind. Selfish asshole!
"SAID THE POT TO THE KETTLE!"
Fuck you! "Fūton: Kakudai Kiri!"
When the Expanding Mist technique didn't explode the pockets of air between him and the fat Pein, Naruto cursed to himself. Right…he can absorb chakra. Fine… Then he closed his eyes and summoned the surrounding natural energy to him.
The boost of vitality and life that normally accompanied his use of natural energy faltered and died. Naruto opened his eyes, panic-stricken. He can absorb natural energy, too?! Shit!
The big Pein with stern features appeared before him, summoning a demonic statue that swallowed the puppet Pein. The latter stepped out from the statue's mouth seconds later, unharmed, and immediately after, the long-haired Pein carrying Nagato appeared before him. "You cannot escape, Kyūbi," Nagato intoned, "and Jiraiya cannot save you." The sounds of battle and the lack of two Peins suggested the Hokage was otherwise engaged. "Now you will experience pain unlike any you've felt before…and then you shall be sacrificed so the rest of the world will also understand that pain."
The six-armed Pein approached him, serrated tail at the ready to eviscerate the blond. I never should have come back, Naruto realized. I'm so stupid. I should've done more research, I should've planned better, I—
The tail shot towards him—
—and immediately veered to the side, decapitating the reviver Pein. Naruto could only blink, a vague 'Wha?' escaping his throat before all the panels on the puppet Pein opened, revealing too many missiles to count.
Naruto felt the grasp of the fat Pein loosen as explosions began to rock the area, Nagato reflecting the blasts with a repulsive force. The blond hit the ground and only years of instinctive self-preservation had him immediately sinking through it with the Attack Prevention Technique.
He resurfaced when the earth stopped thundering to find pieces of the puppet Pein littering the forest floor. Flames devoured fallen detritus and feasted on all tree trunks within several hundred feet. Both the fat and reviver Peins were on the ground, cloaks and hair burned away, skin charred, and limbs blown off their bodies.
Several feet away, Nagato was being picked off the only patch of unmarred ground by the long-haired Pein. Naruto reached for a senbon and released an agonized holler, his skin crackling from where the explosions had been quicker than his reaction time. Gritting his teeth, he plucked a senbon from his pouch with his left arm and aimed it at the pair, multiplying it with a Senbon Shadow Clone Technique that Pein blocked with his body. "You're the only human, aren't you?" Naruto directed at Nagato.
Silence was his only response, broken by the sound of Jiraiya crashing through the foliage and shouting, "Nagato, stop this madness!"
"What you see as madness is just a path for mankind to understand each other through pain," Nagato intoned. "Did you experience that pain when you killed Yahiko, sensei?"
"Yahiko is dead," Jiraiya bit out. "You're the one controlling all these bodies, Nagato, and you're the one who can stop this!"
"Stop it, Jiraiya," Naruto ordered. He drew on just enough of the Kyūbi's chakra to heal the worst of his injuries, knowing that he wasn't in the right mindset to control any more even as the Bijū urged him to do so. "You can't reason with a madman."
"It is the rest of the world that is mad," Nagato asserted, raising his hand towards the blond. "And I shall bring order. Banshō Ten'in!"
Naruto again felt himself pulled towards the Akatsuki-nin, and again found himself held aloft by an orange-haired man. The Kyūbi's chakra began to flow towards Nagato, filling in his gaunt features and giving him a semblance of physicality. He can use the abilities of each of the individual Peins, the blond realized, his strength fading. His chest began to feel tight, and he looked down to find an ethereal specter being pulled from him. "What…is…this?" he gasped.
"A means to an end," Nagato informed him, voice cold. "Your sacrifice is appreciated."
"Ranjishigami no Jutsu!"
A massive mane of white hair roared towards the trio. Nagato repelled it with a burst of power, but it merely bounced back, split into several strands, and wrapped around the two Akatsuki shinobi. "Release him, Nagato, or else."
"Don't make threats you can't keep, sensei."
Jiraiya's hair receded as Nagato absorbed the chakra within it. Naruto felt his whole body begin to shake as even more of the specter was pulled out. He watched Nagato absorb a stream of fire through half-lidded eyes, strength fading.
The sound of something hard hitting flesh jerked Naruto back to attention, body collapsing as Pein released his grip. Blue eyes opened to see Jiraiya standing over him in a defensive stance. "There's a lull between his attacks," the Sannin explained. "Figured it out when I was fighting Ya—the other Pein. Are you okay?"
"Peachy," Naruto groaned.
"Kinda been gettin' my ass kicked. He can absorb any chakra-based attack we throw at him, and I think he can use every ability of the individual Peins, but only when they aren't. That's why they keep dropping. But that means he can probably revive any of them if we don't stay on him."
"Yeah, well, I'm nearly out of steam."
Me, too. The battle was just too fast and too varied for Naruto to keep track, nothing like his normal fights, or even the one he'd just won against Kisame. That he was running out of tricks didn't help anything either. "I've got an idea, but you need to keep him busy."
"I don't know how easy that'll be. You're his target."
Their conversation was interrupted by a two-story, feral-looking, brown-furred dog bearing down on them. Jiraiya leaped into battle with it, hair growing exponentially to tie it down.
Naruto levered himself to a seated position, wincing at the effort. Exhaustion weighed him down like lead. Just a little longer. He formed seals slowly, settling on the final one and threading his chakra through the network of plants which weren't on fire. Haru Seichō no Jutsu.
Without the use of natural energy, each flower bloomed slowly, brilliant pinks, blues, and yellows adding life to the ravaged forest. The blond had a brief moment to admire the revitalized flora before Jiraiya crashed through the burning foliage, three giant dogs and a massive centipede toppling trees behind him. "Any time now!" he yelled to his former pupil.
Yeah yeah. He closed his eyes to summon natural energy and screamed when the sensory input hit him.
His nerves blazed with anguish, far worse than before, every sinew and muscle burning with unending torment. He immediately released his connection to the natural world, too stunned to think clearly. Need to end this, he chanted, a mantra meant to inspire himself to push on. A little more, then I can rest.
Gritting his teeth against the impending agony, he summoned natural energy to him once more, swallowing the scream that threatened to burst from his lips and releasing a high-pitched whimper instead. With his mantra in mind, he opened his eyes and placed his hands upon the ground, channeling what natural energy he could draw through the network of plants. Senpō— he thought, teeth clenched so hard he was sure he'd crack a tooth, —Aromaserapī.
Every flower and even a number of trees began to give off pleasant odors. A mixture of sweet and earthy fragrances wafted through the forest, creating a serene atmosphere that seemed to soothe his aches, just a little. The sounds of battle quieted as the olfactory-based genjutsu took effect, lulling the summoned beasts – and even Jiraiya – to tranquility.
For a moment, Naruto wished that he could allow himself to fully fall under the genjutsu's effect; the unending fire in his veins was excruciating, only matched by the blazing of the surrounding trees. It's the forest, he realized. When something destroys a lot of nature while I'm using natural energy, I feel it, too. He released the natural energy in his system, grimace loosening as the burning fading to a persistent irritation and slowly dissipated. No more senjutsu… he groaned internally.
Unfortunately, the battle wasn't over, and Nagato – whether under the effect of the Sage Art: Aromatherapy technique or not – was still out there. He clambered unsteadily to his feet and activated the Green Sight Technique; without natural energy, his range was limited, but he could still sense the Akatsuki-nin nearby. Good enough.
Naruto went underground and moved towards where he'd sensed Nagato. When he surfaced, carefully, as to not risk breaking the genjutsu, both the redhead and the long-haired Pein were standing still, their backs to him. Perfect. He withdrew a senbon from his pouch, twirled it around his fingers, and swung it at Nagato's neck, wind chakra extending from its tip.
Extra arms sprouted from Nagato's shoulder to catch the blond's arm. Instead of extending an extra foot when Naruto summoned additional wind chakra, the elemental aura vanished, absorbed by the redhead's defensive technique. The long-haired Pein turned and grabbed the Jinchūriki by the throat, painted fingernails digging deeper than necessary into tanned skin. "Clever, but ultimately fruitless, Kyūbi," Nagato said over the wind-user's choking. "As is said, the third time is the charm. This…was inevitable." Pein's free hand came to hover an inch from Naruto's stomach and then pulled back, once more withdrawing an ethereal specter. The demonic statue appeared beside him, mouth open wide in anticipation of the specter.
Naruto gagged as body and soul were forcibly separated, Pein's grip nearly crushing his larynx. He managed a final hacking gurgle as the spirit disconnected from his body, then burst into a cloud of purple smoke.
Nagato coughed as the haze settled over his head and entered his lungs, belatedly dispersing it with a pulse of chakra. Wind rose in a cyclone as Naruto surfaced from the ground, the Contracting Funnel technique fully engulfing the Akatsuki-nin in the remnants of his Doku Kage Bunshin. "You may think you're a god," the blond informed his enemy, rigid disdain coloring his voice, not even sure the man could hear him, "but you're still just a human, like everyone else." Pein collapsed, Nagato falling from his back to the ground with a crumpled thud.
Jiraiya chose that moment to make his entrance, bursting through the foliage with the blond's name falling from his lips. He cut himself off when he noticed the scene before him, whispering with some degree of horror, "Nagato… Naruto, what did you do?"
"He was a threat to my life." Blue eyes bore steely hatred into the fallen, gasping Akatsuki-nin, finding sudden strength in his enemy's demise. "And now he's not." He spared a glance at his former mentor, pausing when he noticed the older man's condition; several of his stranger features had disappeared alongside the toads previously perched on his shoulders, blood soaking his tattered clothes from long gashes along his cheek, left arm, and chest. And that was just what he could see. Naruto was mildly surprised the man was still conscious from all the blood loss.
"He was my student…and I failed him…"
Nagato let out a sputtering chuckle at that, drawing the pair's attention. "You…have only ever…failed…sensei." Jiraiya managed to look simultaneously ashamed and disheartened, and the Akatsuki-nin turned his attention to the Jinchūriki. "Your life…will always…be…in danger…Kyūbi. Killing me…solves nothing."
"I get a target off my back," Naruto spat, "and your fucking organization out of my life. That's enough for me right now."
Nagato's breath hitched in an effort to respond, but he failed, head lolling to the side. Naruto waited several seconds before breathing a long sigh of relief. It's finally over.
"Naruto, we need to talk. Now."
Relief soured to displeasure. "I guess so," he said, turning to the older man. "Forget I was here."
"You've been missing, presumed dead, for five years, and you think I'm just going to let you go?" Jiraiya exclaimed. "After I just watched my other student die? No, that's not going to happen. I want to know what the hell happened to you."
The authority in his demand was abruptly undercut when he stumbled, falling to one knee and hacking up blood. "You should get that looked at."
He turned to leave, but a bush of white hair ensnared him. Craning his neck revealed Jiraiya reaching towards him with one hand, teeth clenched together and one eye closed in concentration. "I'm not letting you leave."
"Doesn't seem like you have that option. Don't fight me, Jiraiya. You won't win."
The blond whirled to find Ino emerging from the forest, somehow looking as impeccable as always. She walked over to Jiraiya and knelt next to him, her hands aglow with gentle green light. Naruto watched, transfixed, as the Yamanaka dutifully healed the Sannin; unbidden, he obeyed her silent entreaty to remain, waiting patiently for her to follow up. When the worst of the man's injuries were taken care of, Ino stood up. "Hokage-sama, may I speak to Naruto privately?"
Jiraiya's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You don't seem very surprised by this development. Did you know Naruto was alive?"
"I found out recently. May I speak with him privately?" she repeated. Jiraiya studied her for several more moments before finally waving his hand dismissively. Ino inclined her head and walked in the direction she'd come from, gesturing for Naruto to follow her. When they were out of the Sannin's earshot, she turned to face him and nodded towards the numerous cuts and and burns that decorated his bare torso. "You look like you've been through the wringer. Want me to heal you?"
"I'll live." The platinum blonde spared him a look that seemed to convey she thought he was being an idiot, but there was no way Naruto wanted to owe Ino anything more than he already did. "What are you doing here?" Blue eyes darted from side to side, as if expecting more Konoha-nin to appear from the surrounding forest. "How'd you even find me?"
Ino dug into her pocket and came out with a closed fist. Opening it revealed a small seed which had split open to reveal a tiny sprout. "I figured this wasn't normal, so I kept an eye out for your chakra signature and followed it."
"How long have you—" and then he remembered the rescue that hadn't made sense, "—wait, can you mind control puppets?"
She smirked at him with far too much self-satisfaction. "Some members of the Yamanaka clan learned to project their consciousness into puppets during the wars with Suna. It's not common nowadays, but after Inojin was born, I figured it wouldn't hurt to have a few extra tricks up my sleeves."
"…Thank you," he offered sincerely. "I don't know…" He cut himself off, knowing that finishing that sentence would involve admitting that he was truly indebted to the blonde. "Is Inojin safe?"
Ino again gave him that look that made the blond feel stupid for even asking. "The first thing I made sure of when I got your warning." There was a pause before she continued, "You care about him, don't you?"
Naruto's eyes flickered briefly away and then back, one foot toeing the ground. "Is there something you wanted to talk about?"
His friend released an annoyed sigh, but seemed to accept his sidestep and asked, "You're still not coming back, right? Even though you've been found out."
He was silent for a long moment. Then he jerked his head in Jiraiya's direction. "Come on. I'm not having this conversation twice." She followed him towards the Sannin, who looked surprised at their return. With authority he didn't know he possessed, especially given his state of exhaustion, the blond demanded, "Jiraiya, who's my father?"
"You told me my mother was an Uzumaki, but you never said anything about my father," Naruto recited, voice becoming flat and almost cold. "I found out recently that my father may have been the Yondaime—" beside him, Ino jerked a little in surprise, "—and I want to know if it's true. Now, Jiraiya," he demanded when the white-haired man didn't immediately respond.
"…Your mother was Uzumaki Kushina," the Sannin replied with measured carefulness, "and your father was my pupil, Namikaze Minato."
The anger burning beneath his skin was familiar, a reminder of how using natural energy had felt with the Land of Fire aflame around him, only now it comforted instead of hurt him, confirming what he'd suspected for years. He bit out, "And why was I never told any of this?"
"We thought it was for the best, to protect you—"
"This," Naruto snapped, whirling to face Ino, outstretched arm stabbing in Jiraiya's direction, "is why I won't stay. I've been lied to my entire life by the people who control me – control us – and now that I'm only responsible for myself, you want me to come back under the thumb of people who won't trust me with the most basic information? Information I deserve to know? Did you ever lie to Inojin about me?"
"No. I thought…I thought he deserved to know who you were."
Naruto nodded. "See, I grew up knowing nothing about my family. And even when I should have been old enough to be told, it was still kept from me. The Yondaime got nothing but respect, but me? Just hatred. Not knowing where I came from helped mold me into who I am, good and bad. Inojin should be given the opportunity I wasn't.
"I appreciate that you told him what I'm like, or was like, but he should figure that out himself. And if he chooses that he doesn't want to know me, then that's his choice, but it should be his choice. Firsthand experience is the best way for people to learn what works for them.
"So no, I'm not coming back. Not permanently, anyway. I refuse to be controlled by people who only want to use me as a pawn and not see me as a person. But…I do want to keep seeing Inojin, so…I'm willing to keep our deal," he told Ino. "Those are my terms."
"Naruto," Jiraiya interceded, "if you leave Konoha again, we will stop you."
The blond scoffed, rolling his eyes at the older man. "In your condition? I don't think so."
"If you leave, you will be listed in the Bingo Book." Jiraiya's voice was barely above frigid. "You won't stop being chased until you're caught and brought back. What kind of example do you think you're setting for your son—"
"Don't pretend you give a damn about the example I'm setting for Inojin," the blond snapped. "If you believed that, you would've done something to tell me who my father was years ago. This is about you controlling me, and I'm not having it."
Jiraiya was silent under his former student's anger, but then pushed forward with stony authority. "Fine. But what kind of life do you think you can keep, always on the run, looking over your shoulder?"
"I've been on the run from Akatsuki for my entire life," Naruto rebutted, "and I've been hiding out from you for the last five years. You could send whoever you want after me, whatever forces you still have after this mess, but it won't make a damn bit of difference."
"Naruto," Ino tried, "why did you come back? Today, with all this happening. I've been in your mind, I know that this is what you've been avoiding for years…so why come back?"
"They were after me," he responded, "Akatsuki. That's why they came here. I found out, and I saw an opportunity to end this. To finally be free." And, he finally admitted, staring with such intensity into Ino's eyes that he hoped she understood his thoughts, I wanted to make sure you two were safe.
There was silence among the trio, both Naruto and Jiraiya's forms fraught with tension, waiting for the other to make a move. To their surprise, Ino moved first, placing herself between them with the blond at her back. Naruto wondered if she'd actually read his mind and received his message. "Hokage-sama…you have to let him go."
"Yamanaka, while I respect the delicate position you may be in here—"
"He hates it here," Ino interjected. "He's hated it here for a very long time, and forcing him to stay isn't going to change anything. You'll have to lock him up, and not only does not that help anyone, but he'll never stop trying to get away." She tossed a glance backwards at her fellow blond. "I think he's resourceful enough to succeed.
"We reached an agreement recently. Naruto will pass information affecting Konoha he learns from the outside to me, and in return, he gets to see our son." Naruto's lips quirked at the corners, finding small comfort in his friend finally acknowledging that Inojin was more than just hers. "In all his time as a nukenin, he never once did anything against Konoha.
"You may not like it, but Naruto's intentions aren't bad. He may be acting selfishly, but that doesn't mean he's working against us. The fact that he came back here to fight Akatsuki when it would've been in his interest to stay away should prove that."
Jiraiya's lips were set in a grimace, every muscle in his face tight in reflection of his internal struggle. After a minute of silence, his whole form sagged, reluctant acceptance aging his battered body. "Fine," he muttered, and there was a melancholic note of loss in his voice. "I guess I don't really have a choice, huh? Yamanaka, you'll be his handler…or whatever you want to call it," he corrected when Naruto cleared his throat in protest. The Sannin rubbed a tired hand through his long hair and turned around to face the village. "I guess if we want this kept a secret, I should head back to Konoha and check on the damage. Duties of the Hokage and all that."
"There'll be a power vacuum in Ame," Naruto tossed out. "Pein was in charge there, and now that he's gone, who knows what'll happen."
"…Fantastic. Thanks for the info at least." The Jinchūriki grunted in acknowledgement, and Jiraiya added, "For what it's worth, I'm sorry we never told you about your father. If I could go back in time…well, there's a lot of things I would've done different."
Naruto didn't bother responding; the scenario reminded him of Kakashi's compliment after he'd beaten Sasuke, and although Jiraiya's apology seemed heartfelt, a mixture of anger, pride, and irritation tempered his ability to accept it. The Sannin's shoulders slumped a little further in the ensuing silence, and when it became apparent that was all he was going to get, he took to the trees, leaving the two blonds alone. "You didn't have to do that," he finally said.
Ino turned to face him, one platinum blonde eyebrow raised in query. "Oh? You mean you had a solution that didn't involve fighting the Hokage and running from ANBU for the rest of your life?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Look, I know it's not your ideal solution, but you'll just have to trust me and Jiraiya-sama."
"You're not the problem," came the pointed retort.
She smirked a little at that, and Naruto realized how satisfied she must feel knowing that she still had some sort of pull over him. Though the response had been more automatic than anything else, he knew that it wasn't any less true; the idea that he could trust someone else at this point was strange, but not as uncomfortable as he'd thought. Even after so much time – or, perhaps, because of it (and her mind-reading) – Ino understood him in a way no one else in Konoha did, and it was that trait that allowed him to willingly place himself at her behest, especially for a mutually beneficial cause. Softly, she said, "Thanks though, for coming back. It means more than you probably realize." Slowly, she took careful steps forward and placed her arms around his shoulders, bringing him in for a brief, tight hug. "I'm not sure we would've survived."
He remained frozen in the embrace, relaxing slightly when she moved back after a couple of seconds. "I still care, you know?" Despite trying to forget, he added mentally. "I just need to live for me."
Ino graced him with a sad smile. "Yeah, I know. I'm not sure it'll mean much, but…I think I can forgive you. Eventually," she clarified. "It'll just take a bit to get used to this new version of you."
Naruto nodded. "I get it." He cocked his head, looking like a bird trying to hear something in the distance; Ino had never been so hard for him to read, and it bothered him that he didn't know what she ultimately wanted or thought when it seemed like he was an open book to her. The unbalance unnerved him, just a little. "I should probably get going. I've got to recover from…all this. I'll be back soon with another seed, okay?"
"Sure. We'll see you soon."
He nodded once more and then allowed the earth to swallow him whole.
Zetsu released his jutsu when Naruto disappeared, Black Zetsu's yellow eye finished with recording the pair's interaction. The plant-man's white side released a short whistle. "Wow, that was some fight, huh? Both of them. He's certainly come a long way. So what do you think's next?"
He hummed in thought, at a rare loss for words. He'd gone through life treating it as a game, and the next move required consideration. When he'd worked for Kusa, the game had been survival, and the rules had been clear: obey the hierarchy. After he'd left, the rules had simply stopped existing. Reveling in anarchy was so much more entertaining than the drudgery of settling for being another cog in the machine.
It was with that spirit that he'd interjected himself in Naruto's life, finding no small amount of glee in introducing chaos to the blond's tiny worldview. Granted, his lessons had served a practical purpose in addition to entertainment, for Zetsu believed in wandering unexplored avenues (which could in turn lead to further branching roads) when they presented themselves, but Naruto had risen to each new challenge with aplomb.
More impressively, he'd taken each new perspective presented to him and adjusted his worldview accordingly, manipulating his personal playbook until it was too complex for anyone else to understand. Zetsu suspected that there were moments when even Naruto hadn't been sure what the right move for him was, at internal conflict with some personal dichotomy, though he seemed to disguise his hesitancy beneath a façade of rigorous thought well enough.
But that, the plant-man supposed, was the truly astonishing part. Zetsu had consistently presented his disciple with options meant to shred his sanity and push him away from Konoha's order and towards freedom's chaos. That the Jinchūriki had spent years planning on how to escape the Hidden Leaf proved his efforts had been successful.
Yet, based on the interaction of the two blonds, Naruto had clearly twisted those lessons into a different rulebook, where he could live in both worlds. He was…perverse? Moral?
Black Zetsu allowed a deep, throaty chuckle to bubble forth as the realization hit him. Naruto had truly embraced his teachings if he'd been able to formulate a set of rules based on every decision running counterintuitive to itself. "He's cheating."
White Zetsu's normal eye blinked in confusion. "What?"
"He's cheating," asserted the renegade's dark half. "He's set himself up as both independent from Konoha and yet reliant upon a select few to get what he wants. But even then, it doesn't truly matter if it falls through." Whatever scenario the blond had envisioned himself living, he'd twisted it to create a situation where he was now simultaneously in control and at the behest of the platinum blonde. "It sounds very ironic. It certainly is." He chuckled again. "But what else should we expect? He learned from the best!"
Zetsu traced Naruto's chakra as he went back to his home in the Land of Grass. "Back to where it all began," he mused aloud. "Move forward by living in the past? More like learning from it, but yes, something like that. Then let's go! I wanna see how this plays out."
He melded into the ground and followed behind his disciple, eager to see what Naruto's next steps would be.
Author's Note: Well guys and gals, that's it. Maybe it ended the way you thought, maybe it didn't, but this is where I've pictured leaving this story for years. Writing this has been a treat, and a lot of fun, and I hope that you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.
Thanks for all the support over the years, for your ideas, comments, theories, everything. As always, feel free to let me know what you think of this finale, I'm more than willing to answer any questions you may have. I shall return with the next story as soon as I can.