Somewhere in the Land of Storms, EN.
Throughout Zetsu’s considerable lifespan, he had heard a great many things and seen everything imaginable. His Mistress had seen fit to give him an eidetic memory, so while he hadn’t always paid attention to the quaint human phrase, Zetsu found himself remembering it.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Zetsu felt that it was quite appropriate for the current situation. After Naruto had sprinted into the rain and disappeared between the trees, Zetsu had realized it would have been wise to handle things differently.
The new sensation—Zetsu believed humans called it pain—that he was experiencing would have made him wince if he currently had a face. It was annoyingly preventing him from focusing his senses on Naruto, who was rapidly getting further away. Within a few moments, the boy would vanish entirely.
It was an odd, irritating sensation, pain. Over the centuries, he had been impaled by powerful blades, felt the full force of prodigious Jutsu, and survived without a scratch. Nothing had caused him to ever feel pain, so Zetsu had simply assumed he was incapable of experiencing it.
It was the newest of undesired surprises in a long, seemingly unending series.
Nothing had gone to plan, although Zetsu realized that had happened a long time ago. He wasn’t even sure how many schemes he had concocted and set into motion, only to have them ruined by an unexpected factor.
Another new sensation swept over Zetsu, and he rolled his immaterial eyes. He didn’t have time for chakra exhaustion.
Finally, the last scraps of his reached him and merged back together. Zetsu immediately manifested a set of eyes and looked around. It was far too late to pursue Naruto. The boy was frantic and would flee until he dropped. Zetsu could barely move.
Zetsu had to admit his admiration, however. Naruto had succeeded in removing him, something many had failed to ever accomplish. What’s more, if he hadn’t hastily erected defenses, Naruto might have actually killed him—his physical manifestation that is. Although being forcefully reverted to helpless invisible chakra vapor for the next hundred years would have been inconvenient, to say the least.
It would be quite impossible to fulfill his purpose in such a state.
Progress was agonizingly slow, but Zetsu forced himself across the mud toward the One-tails Jinchūriki. The redheaded boy was still unconscious, and Zetsu had hoped to keep him that way for a while. Now there wasn’t any other option, and he had to move quickly.
Once he was close enough, Zetsu manifested a tendril from the surface of his black blob-like body. Puncturing the Jinchūriki’s hand, he began moving his mass along the tendril, merging with the boy’s chakra. Shifting states was more difficult than it should have been. Zetsu still didn’t have complete control over his chakra.
Normally moving through a host’s spider-like web of parasites was an effortless task, using the chakra to propel, sustain, and conceal himself. He’d already known what he would find, but the complete lack of chakra caused by the seal on the boy’s forehead was irritating nonetheless.
Moving through the Jinchūriki’s pathways was made more laborious because Zetsu had to use his own chakra to maintain them long enough to pass by. The three days of exposure to the seal had wreaked havoc on the boy’s body. It would only need another day or so, and the Jinchūriki would die. Zetsu didn’t like cutting it that close, but it had been tricky to haul Naruto back into reality.
The little chakra he had left was fading quickly, but Zetsu didn’t have time to recover. It would take too long. Additionally, Naruto would need Gaara, so he couldn’t just leave the Jinchūriki behind.
It took several agonizing minutes to reach the only part of the Jinchūriki’s chakra network that still contained chakra. Zetsu was sorely tempted to absorb some of it, but he couldn’t risk damaging the boy’s mind.
Had the boy been conscious, Zetsu suspected entering his mind would have been challenging. His life as the One-Tails Jinchūriki would have led him to build mental barriers, even if he wasn’t aware of what he was doing. However, there were no obstacles right now, and Zetsu let himself into the Jinchūriki’s mindscape.
It was dark, so much so that even Zetsu could only barely make out the walls nearby. His diminutive blob-like form elongated and grew taller, and in a moment, he was standing on two legs. His entire figure was midnight black and glinted with a slight shine, as if wet.
He could be assumed for a human wearing a black wet suit of some kind if not for his odd triangular teeth and implausibly round glowing eyes. Zetsu wasn’t sure why his Mistress had imagined him this way, but he’d never given it much thought either.
Once he had adjusted to the low light in the Jinchūriki’s mindscape, Zetsu was not surprised to find it made almost entirely of sand and sandstone. In his experience, human minds tended to reflect the environments they experienced the most. It was rare that humans ever became aware of these inner worlds and even rarer that they intentionally modified their appearance.
The Jinchūriki’s mindscape strongly resembled a tomb. Aside from the extremely dim torches placed every three hundred paces along the passageway walls, everything was made of sandstone. Much of that sandstone was coated by a layer of sand, with many heaps in odd places.
Zetsu couldn’t be sure where in the Jinchūriki’s mindscape he had appeared, which meant it would take some time to find what he was looking for. However, he paused for a moment to observe the carving on the wall in front of him.
It was rather difficult to see, but the carving seemed to depict a young girl Zetsu recognized as the Jinchūriki’s sister. She looked several years younger, and her face was distorted by horror and fear. Her stance portrayed her in the middle of turning to flee. Zetsu couldn’t make out anything more as much of the carving was cracked.
Leaving the memory behind, Zetsu began moving through the dimly-lit passageways. Aside from the hundreds of carvings on the walls, the decorations never changed.
He could sense the psychotic aura of the One-tails, but reaching its source took an hour of wandering through the Jinchūriki’s mindscape. Many times he was stopped by a dead-end or a gigantic pile of sand.
Zetsu normally wouldn’t have bothered with such a mundane method and instead merge with the fabric of the mindscape to appear at his destination. However, he didn’t want to risk frightening the Jinchūriki. Despite being physically unconscious, he might notice Zetsu’s invasion and fight against it.
Neither of them had enough strength for such a pointless battle.
The Three-Tail’s seal had taken the appearance of an enormous pair of closed sandstone doors. The tops of which were so high in the air that Zetsu couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Despite its daunting appearance, the seal didn’t look all that strong.
A huge wooden beam, nearly three hundred feet in length, rested on two metal hooks. It was the only thing preventing the door from being opened from the inside. The door itself was covered in numerous cracks spanning its entire surface, many of which were large enough for Zetsu to slip through.
The door looked like it should have collapsed underneath its own weight long ago yet was held together by some invisible force.
Zetsu stood a hundred paces from the seal’s gigantic manifestation in the Jinchūriki’s mindscape. However, he wasn’t alone.
Only a few dozen paces from the door was the Jinchūriki. He sat cross-legged on the sand-covered floor, his hands in a seal. A few feet in front of him was a wall of translucent white light, which was holding back the One-Tails chakra leaking through the cracks in the door.
The chakra desperately tried to reach the Jinchūriki but was stopped by the wall, and after a few seconds, the chakra was sucked up into the darkness above. However, the redhead’s eyes were closed, and he looked to be on the verge of collapsing.
It wasn’t just the Bijū’s chakra being absorbed by the seal on the Jinchūriki’s forehead, and motes of azure light continually emanated from his body and were sucked up as well.
Zetsu sighed sadly at the scene before him. He had suspected the truth, but it was unquestionable now. The only thing holding the seal that contained the One-Tails was Gaara himself. If the boy lowered his guard for even a moment, the Bijū would immediately escape and take control of his body.
While the sealing tag on the boy’s forehead weakened the Bijū, it wasn’t enough. Without the Jinchūriki’s willingness to fight the Bijū, the seal would be worthless. Which made Zetsu wonder why Gaara was so determined to resist the Bijū’s control, even to the point of certain death.
Zetsu walked past the Jinchūriki’s motionless form and stopped at the edge of the translucent wall keeping back the Bijū’s chakra.
“I know you’re there, Shukaku!” Zetsu shouted, his voice reverberating in the sandstone passageway.
The huge yellow eyes of a gigantic creature opened in the darkness beyond the cracked doors. The sclera of each eye was black, with yellow irides—the pupil black four-pointed stars surrounded by four black dots. Zetsu ignored the unadulterated hatred and loathing within the eyes.
“Why are you here, Zetsu!”
The One-Tails Bijū’s roar shook the walls of the mindscape, causing copious amounts of sand to rain from the ceiling high above. Zetsu’s expression was unreadable, his wide, unblinking eyes the only feature on his face. “Where were you when I was trapped in a teapot at the hands of the humans for decades!”
Zetsu’s eyes flickered with irritation, and his frighteningly sharp teeth appeared on his face.
“I was not conceived to get you out of every teapot you got yourself into, Shukaku.” Zetsu retorted.
The One-Tail growled, making the floor vibrate. Zetsu didn’t care. If the Bijū could escape the seal, he already would have done so, and Zetsu was annoyed.
“If your useless tanuki brain can remember, I was charged with watching over the Kaminoki’s child.” Zetsu said, his voice dripping with vitriol.
Zetsu snorted as the One-Tails directed its killing intent at him, the air around him becoming heavier. While the semi-physical pressure could harm him eventually, the actual fear had no effect.
As humans referred to it, killing intent was a being’s spiritual power, their will, a manifestation of the desire to kill. Normally, this sensation was so weak as to be completely unnoticeable. But with the use of chakra, it could be enhanced until it triggered an instinctual part of the human mind, the fear of death.
However, Zetsu didn’t fear death, and he physically lacked those parts of his mind. His Mistress hadn’t created him with it.
Zetsu continued on speaking as if nothing had happened, ignoring the One-Tail’s anger completely. “Which, I might add, you have tried to kill on more than on occasion.”
The giant yellow eyes closed, and Shukaku’s uproarious laughing shook the entire mindscape. Zetsu waited impatiently for Shukaku to calm down.
“That pathetic weakling is definitely not the son of my creator!” Shukaku continued to laugh mockingly. “Have you come here to entertain me for old times sake, Zetsu?”
Zetsu didn’t reply, but he sighed internally. He’d expected Shukaku’s anger, but he had hoped the mention of the Creator’s son would knock some sense into the deranged giant tanuki.
“Naruto is the child of the Kaminoki.” Zetsu said, “He did not awaken as planned due to your endeavors to have your Jinchūriki kill him.”
Shukaku snorted, causing a cloud of sand to sweep down the passageway behind Zetsu.
“What do you want, Zetsu?” Shukaku demanded, his voice cold. “How long do you intend to keep me locked away in here?”
Zetsu ground his teeth in annoyance. Shukaku was being difficult, which wasn’t unsurprising. The Bijū had seemed to develop a disdain for everyone a thousand years ago, and Zetsu had rarely seen the Bijū since.
He needed Shukaku’s cooperation, or at the very least, his agreement to not interfere. The Jinchūriki was nearing the breaking point, and Zetsu wasn’t strong enough right now to keep Shukaku inside the seal by himself.
“That will depend,” Zetsu said slowly. “On whether you will work with me to find the Kaminoki’s child.”
Shukaku’s gigantic glowing eyes snapped open in the darkness, illuminating much of the passageway with their intense glow.
“You lost him.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Due to the complications of his awakening, the child did not react favorably to learning the truth of who and what he is.” Zetsu replied, endeavoring to ignore Shukaku’s accusing tone.
When the giant tanuki’s cold, emotionless eyes abruptly filled with mirth, and Shukaku began laughing louder than before, Zetsu wasn’t surprised. The One-Tails had always been like this. He brushed the falling sand off his shoulders and once again waited for Shukaku to calm down.
“The brat bested you!” Shukaku roared, his laughter sounding like maniacal cackling. Zetsu didn’t reply, and a few moments later, the mindscape returned to silence.
It was several minutes before Shukaku spoke again, during which Zetsu evenly met the Bijū’s stare.
“I will help you find the brat,” Shukaku said finally, sounding displeased with his own decision. “If you remove the seal eating my chakra.”
The tanuki’s eyes closed, returning the passageway to darkness. Zetsu could feel the Bijū get to its feet, the floor shaking.
“Do not think I am done with you, however,” Shukaku warned, his oddly high-pitched but thunderous voice sounding further away.
Zetsu nodded, “I shall remove the seal and explain things to the Jinchūriki. However, I will not permit you to torture the boy’s mind any longer. You have nearly driven him insane, and for what purpose?”
Shukaku didn’t reply, and Zetsu knew he wouldn’t ever. It wouldn’t surprise him if the One-Tails tortured Gaara simply for the sake of it or out of sheer boredom. Out of all the Bijū, the One-Tails had always been the strangest one, and it had only gotten worse over the years.
Will he even agree to fulfill his purpose when the time comes? Zetsu wondered as he turned toward the slouched Jinchūriki. He shook his head. There wasn’t anything he could do about it now.
He crouched in front of the boy, observing him. Gaara was still maintaining the shield wall, although Shukaku had retracted his chakra and retreated back into his seal. The boy’s willpower impressed Zetsu, and he again wondered what it was the boy was trying to protect.
Zetsu knew a little bit more of Gaara’s history than Naruto, but it wasn’t enough to explain the boy’s unflappable will. Gaara had every reason to release Shukaku on everyone around him and bathe in their blood, yet he resisted. Of course, the boy still indulged Shukaku’s lust for blood, but it was on his terms.
Reaching out, Zetsu placed his hand on Gaara’s lowered head. His body began to morph, losing its humanoid shape and becoming a liquid that moved to quickly envelop the motionless Jinchūriki.
He would have to remove the sealing tag on Gaara’s forehead first, and then he could begin work to restore the boy’s chakra network. It would take time for Gaara to wake up, even with his best efforts to hasten the process.
Time that Zetsu didn’t have.
A sharp crack of thunder rent across the stormy skies, holding the coming cloudburst. Buried deep within the morose forest below, cold eyes shot open.
Gaara sat up slowly, his expression blank. He had expected to wake up in a cell. Instead, he was lying underneath an open stormy sky, rain pounding down on him. He wasn’t surprised to find that he didn’t recognize his surroundings, but the fact that he was still in the Land of Storms confused him.
He got to his feet, ignoring the plight of his soaked and mud-covered clothes. Gaara observed his surroundings slowly, but there wasn’t anyone nearby. He felt his forehead, but the seal he remembered Naruto applying was gone.
Rain streamed down Gaara’s hair and face as he closed his eyes, turning his attention inward. The demon was still inside him, of course, but it was not trying to escape. In fact, it was doing the opposite, seemingly having retreated further into the seal. Gaara didn’t trust it.
Gaara opened his eyes as another peel of thunder split the air and once again cast his eyes about the surrounding forest. He was awake, but he shouldn’t be.
He had been carried by someone, although Gaara was confused as to who. He would have woken up in a cell if Suna had captured him, which meant it had to have been Naruto. However, the pale prince was nowhere in sight.
As the seconds dragged by, the rain continuing to pour down with a vengeance, Gaara’s senses slowly recovered. There wasn’t anyone nearby that he could tell for hundreds of paces, and no sand responded to his summons.
Looking around one more time, Gaara calmly nodded to himself and folded his arms. There was only one explanation. It didn’t make complete sense, but everything else was impossible.
“What are you waiting for?” Gaara said coolly, and a few seconds later, an unfamiliar voice replied.
The voice seemed odd to Gaara. It sounded just like what Gaara imagined a completely neutral voice would sound, lacking any accent entirely. It didn’t seem to be coming from any direction, which meant it was in his head.
[How did you know I was here?] The voice asked, sounding amused.
“You were controlled Naruto’s body when the Suna Shinobi attacked,” Gaara said. There was a pocket of loose stone in the earth beneath him, and he sent as much chakra as he could spare toward it. Grinding it into sand would take considerable time, but Gaara felt exposed without it.
[Yes.] The voice replied, [But you knew about me before that, didn’t you?]
Gaara sat down in the mud, ignoring the coldness permeating his body.
“Where is Naruto?” Gaara asked as he folded his hands vertically, his left thumb on top, forming the Hitsuji. His chakra began to circulate as he kneaded his inner spiritual, and physical energies.
[He wasn’t ready to learn the truth of who he is…] The voice sounded sad. [He ran.]
Gaara grimaced and forced more chakra into his pathways. The pain was excruciating, and he usually tried to use as little chakra as he could for a few days following being sealed. However, letting down his guard to such an extent was often not an option, and he’d learned to ignore the pain.
His chakra reserves were lower than he would have liked, but he wasn’t without options.
“Which way?” Gaara demanded.
[To the north.] The voice replied. It sounded bewildered. Gaara performed a single handseal technique and turned a bit to his left, aligning himself toward the north.
[You do not seem surprised, did Shukaku tell you about me?] The voice asked curiously. Gaara filed the name of the demon away but otherwise ignored the voice’s question.
[It took me nearly three hours to restore your chakra.]
Gaara didn’t wait for the voice to finish speaking. Chakra exploded violently from his inner flame, tinged with demonic power. The urge to scream in agony was nearly overwhelming, but Gaara gritted his teeth through the pain.
His first step launched mud and rainwater in every direction, the next a frighteningly powerful chakra-enhanced jump. The forest blurred as Gaara’s speed increased exponentially, his body brimming with demonic power.
With no care for stealth, Gaara left a trail of shattered tree branches in his wake.
The hours raced by quickly, and the Jinchūriki’s speed had yet to slow. Zetsu had fallen silent, working to recover from the damage Naruto had rashly caused. He made sure to occasionally check on the boy as he traveled, but doing so was taxing.
Normally, he would invade a host’s mind and use their eyes and ears to observe the outside world. However, as he’d suspected, the Jinchūriki had impressive mental barriers. It wouldn’t be impossible for Zetsu to break them, but it wasn’t worth the effort currently.
Because of that, Zetsu could only speculate on a number of peculiarities regarding the redheaded boy. Gaara’s actions as of late might be mistaken as some sort of bizarre, spontaneous loyalty to Naruto, but Zetsu wasn’t so naive.
He had seen such devoutly inexplicable loyalty spring from thin air a hundred thousand times before. Naruto didn’t know it yet, but he tended to have that effect on people.
However, it wasn’t true loyalty, as it was birthed of fear and self-preservation. In Gaara’s case, Zetsu doubted the Jinchūriki had any care for his own survival. He knew the boy had tried to kill himself before on several occasions.
It was rather obvious, and Zetsu was rather surprised when he finally pieced it together. The only things that mattered to Gaara were his siblings. They were the reason he fought Shukaku’s control day and night. The Bijū had most likely threatened to kill the boy’s brother and sister if he ever broke free again.
Before trying to kill Naruto in the Shinobi Academy hallway, Gaara hadn’t cared whether Naruto lived or died. He was just trying to sate Shukaku’s thirst for blood.
Zetsu had been prepared to save his young master, even at the expense of Gaara’s life, but it had proved unnecessary. In those brief moments where Gaara had choked Naruto, he had touched Naruto’s skin directly, and everything changed.
Of course, the bloodthirsty redheaded Jinchūriki was not the first to experience what Zetsu called kaigan, enlightenment. There was no way for him to know what exactly the Jinchūriki had seen, but Zetsu had completed his part of the ceremony anyway. Leaving a simple message in Gaara’s mind during his brief moment of weakness hadn’t been difficult.
“Only Naruto has the power to prevent the catastrophe you see from occurring to this world.” Of course, he had to modify his usual message a bit so Gaara would understand it.
He hadn’t expected it to have any lasting effect on the Jinchūriki. Shukaku could be quite convincing when he wanted to be. However, Gaara had decided that keeping Naruto alive was worth resisting the Bijū’s demand for Naruto’s blood.
It was a fascinating—and for a long time—inexplicable change. However, now it all made sense.
Zetsu tried to reach out with the sixth sense granted to him by the Creator but quickly retracted it. He was still recovering from Naruto’s attack, and trying to use that part of his power was incredibly painful. The boy had managed to burn his sixth sense raw, and it would take time to heal.
It made sense, though Naruto hadn’t known what he was doing in the slightest.
However, his injuries meant that Zetsu had no way to know whether or not Gaara had passed Naruto. He knew the Jinchūriki was searching with his own senses, but Zetsu didn’t like being uncertain.
The exertion of power was tedious, but he manifested himself over the left side of Gaara’s body. Just like the first time Zetsu had done this three hours ago, the redhead didn’t react in the slightest.
Zetsu didn’t impede the boy’s movements, simply holding on like half a pair of skin-tight clothes. Gaara continued to propel himself across the treetops and through the unending downpour. He cleared a large raging river in a single bound, not hesitating even slightly as he hit the opposite riverbank.
Leaping into the trees once more, Gaara dashed from branch to branch at blinding speed.
Zetsu look around with his single yellow eye, but there was only a never ending deluged forest in every direction. He tried to reach out with his sixth sense again, but the result was no different. There was nothing to do but hope that Naruto had continued to run north.
It wouldn’t take long for his young master to be struck with another vision, and without Zetsu to block it, he would collapse to the ground.
Lost in his thoughts, it took Zetsu a few seconds longer than it should have to realize that Gaara had abruptly come to a stop.
“What’s wrong?” Zetsu said, using the half of his mouth he had manifested to speak.
Gaara didn’t reply for a moment as he looked around at the forest floor thirty feet below. The Jinchūriki had come to a stop on the very top of a tree and was perfectly maintaining his balance on a thin branch that shouldn’t have been able to support him in the strong storm winds.
“Naruto has either deviated from his path north, or he has become much faster,” Gaara replied succinctly. “He stayed on the ground, so I was able to follow his trails, but the rain has washed them all away now.”
Zetsu was surprised to learn that Gaara had been following tracks, but the information was also concerning. It was rare for a Shinobi, even one as green as Naruto, to run along the ground like a civilian. Gaara kept his balance, silently waiting for instructions.
It was a gamble and one that Zetsu wasn’t confident in. Naruto might have changed directions, or it might have been as simple as him suddenly deciding to use chakra after running for so long.
“How long ago did you lose his tracks?” Zetsu asked.
“Thirty minutes ago, shortly before crossing the last river,” Gaara replied immediately.
Zetsu didn’t like any of his options, but the worst part was just how long Naruto had run without stopping. It was possible Naruto had been moving quite slowly for some time and then eventually used chakra. However, what was more concerning was the fact that they hadn’t found the boy yet.
Learning even a little bit about his true heritage had understandably scared Naruto, but Zetsu knew the boy too well. He wouldn’t have just run aimlessly for so long without stopping to think.
This isn’t good, Zetsu thought, his half mouth twisting into a grimace. Are they already affecting him so soon? The barriers broke early, but this isn’t right.
“Continue north.” Zetsu decided, desperately hoping he was making the right choice. He had been at Naruto’s side for the large majority of the last several thousand years, and now at the most critical time, he’d lost him.
Gaara slipped off the edge of the thin branch, plummeting a dozen feet before landing in a crouch on a most substantial one below. The force behind his kick shattered the wood in a flurry of wood shards and bark.
Zetsu retreated back into Gaara’s body, and another hour passed in swift silence apart from the roar of the thunderstorm overhead. He carefully siphoned some of the Jinchūriki’s chakra, knowing he was risking hampering Gaara’s recovery by doing so.
But his connection to the Creator’s power was still haywire, and it was infuriating. For the entirety of his existence, Zetsu had always relied on his sixth sense.
Now without it, Zetsu felt practically blind. He’d realized that he should have expected such a move from Naruto and prepared for it. Conversely, such a thing had never happened before. No one had ever been able to pry Zetsu off against his will, and many had tried.
There are Samurai ahead.
Zetsu was mildly surprised by the thought Gaara projected at him, somehow managing to sound emotionless. The chakra he’d siphoned earlier made it somewhat more natural to manifest himself, but it was still challenging.
The Jinchūriki had once again come to a stop atop the tallest branch of a tree. The rain had lessened up slightly, and visibility was improved enough to make out a gap in the woods three hundred paces ahead.
It appeared to be a road, constructed of stone brick, that crossed Gaara’s path north at a slight angle off to the west. Alone that wouldn’t be an issue. However, there was a thirty strong force of Samurai directly ahead of Gaara.
Have we already reached the border? Zetsu thought incredulously. The Samurai seemed to be on guard, but there wasn’t any city ahead that he could make out through the downpour. Where are you, Naruto-sama?
Zetsu shifted through his options for a few moments.
“Go around them.” Zetsu decided, and Gaara nodded but didn’t move.
Curious to see what the Jinchūriki would do, Zetsu watched. He briefly checked for Shukaku’s presence in the boy’s mind, but the tanuki hadn’t returned from the deepest recesses of the seal.
A minute dragged by, and still, Gaara hadn’t moved, his eyes locked on the Samurai three hundred paces away. Zetsu raised an eyebrow he didn’t have as Gaara suddenly dropped out of the tree and began to run a wide circle around the Samurai.
He was waiting for an inexorable command to kill that never came… Zetsu thought sadly. What have you done to this boy’s mind, Shukaku?
The One-Tails didn’t reply, but Zetsu knew the Bijū could hear him.
Uddorando Province, Land of Grass, EN.
Flames danced in the bright midday sun, thin wisps of smoke rising into the air. Chunks of meat vaguely resembling the edible parts of a rabbit slowly turned on a stout wooden skewer. The fire fizzled as blood, expunged by the heat, dripped down onto the charred firewood.
Rather than the human hand, one might expect to be turning the skewer, there was a thin tendril of sand dutifully rotating the meat.
Green eyes watched the sand tendril with indifference, seemingly focused elsewhere. Gaara blinked and sat up straighter, scanning his eyes across his surroundings.
Nearby on his right was a lush green forest, the sunlight streaming through the leaves in alluring rays. On the left was a large grassy field beyond the gentle hill he was sitting on top of.
Almost a month had passed since Gaara had woken up from his sealing tag-induced coma in the Land of Storms. The voice had eventually introduced itself as Zetsu, and at its instruction, Gaara had ventured within a half-mile of every city, village, and town near the border.
The first week had passed with no results, and Gaara had spent the next two searching the Land of Storms. He made sure to avoid Shinobi, Samurai, and civilians alike. It was unlikely that the latter two would recognize him, but he had no interest in being found by Suna Shinobi.
Zetsu had gone silent four days ago, and Gaara was content to let it do so.
Gaara waved his hand, and three more tendrils of sand rose from the earth. The chunks of rabbit were removed from the skewer and placed on a rough wooden board. The tendrils brought it to him and held it in place before him as he picked up a piece and bit down.
More times than Gaara could remember, he had caught spawn animals and creatures and had learned to cook them himself.
He found the food he made himself more enjoyable for some reason, which was often why he ignored his sister’s efforts to get him to eat in his father’s mansion. Of course, Gaara despised even being in the same room as his father.
Gaara closed his eyes, appreciating the melting flavor of the rabbit meat. Because of the demon’s influence, he could eat the rabbit raw without consequence. Many failed experiments had led him to discover a method that made it taste the best. It was one of the few joys Gaara had.
He expected that Zetsu would want to go back to the Land of Wind soon, but Gaara doubted they would find any trace of Naruto there either. It was possible that Kumo, or the strange group of Shinobi that Gaara had briefly fought before fleeing Suna, had captured Naruto. If that was the case, Gaara expected Zetsu would desert him to look for Naruto.
Gaara hadn’t decided what he would do when that happened. Escaping his father’s clutches had been a daydream for most of his life, and now he was finally free.
It was a childish wish come true, but Gaara wasn’t even thinking about that.
He knew he didn’t understand anything, but he had seen a world eerily similar to his own burn in hellfire. He had watched, helpless and afraid, as gigantic, tripodal creatures fought to defend their home against god-like ashen demons.
In the end, they had lost, and their world was purged with unquenchable roaring flames. There was something more happening, something far stronger than the demon he contained, and Gaara had accepted that he was pathetic in comparison.
When those ashen gods came to his world, his siblings would die among everyone else, and there would be nothing he could do to prevent it.
Somehow, Naruto was the solution.
His voluntary week of solitude in his cell had been spent in meditation as he replayed the memories again and again. Gaara had emerged with only more questions and no answers. It had become quickly apparent that Naruto didn’t have the answers he wanted.
So he had begun studying the prince, following him constantly. He’d noticed the foreign Shinobi that shadowed Naruto wherever he went, and since the Suna Shinobi were not aware of them, he gladly fed their blood to the incessant demon.
He suspected the foreign Shinobi wanted to take Naruto away, and Gaara refused to allow the prince out of his sight. He had to save his siblings from the coming hellfire.
Gaara’s thoughts were interrupted by Zetsu. The peculiar creature sounded alarmed. [Four teams of high-Jōnin Shinobi are quickly approaching from the south.]
He frowned and swallowed the chunk of meat in between his teeth as he got to his feet. He couldn’t sense anyone approaching, but he knew the creature’s abilities were far superior to his own.
Gaara slowly walked down the hill, directing a portion of the new sand in his gourd into the earth beneath his feet. He rolled his neck, feeling the rough texture of his sand armor against his skin.
[Six hundred paces and closing.] Zetsu warned, and Gaara’s eyes narrowed. He still couldn’t sense anyone. He observed the distant treeline, his arms folded in front of him.
Less than a minute later, four Suna Elite Shinobi broke free of the trees, dashing across the lush field at high speed. Gaara growled, his sand roaring as it flew into the air from the head of his gourd. The Shinobi reached three hundred paces and were closing rapidly.
Gaara formed the Tora seal, “Suna Arare!”
Sand permeated the sky as it climbed higher and higher, racing against itself as it merged to become a massive boulder high above. As the last of the sand consolidated, Gaara’s eyes flickered.
Gaara threw his open palms toward the approaching Suna Elite, and his sand sprung into action. Tightly compacted chunks of sand rained down from the sky upon the Shinobi.
The foremost Shinobi leaped back, narrowly avoiding being crushed beneath a boulder. One of his companions finished a short set of handseals and dropped to one knee to slam his palm against the ground. A ten-inch thick wall of stone rose from the earth in front of him, shielding him from Gaara’s technique.
One of the Shinobi responded to the attack the way Gaara had hoped he would. Drawing a sealing tag from his kunai pouch, the Shinobi didn’t slow as he punched the boulder bearing down on him. The sand shattered instantly, the chakra within absorbed.
The Suna Elite teams had brought sealing tags, which meant they’d been looking for him specifically, and he couldn’t let any get close to him.
Gaara glanced at the fourth Shinobi, who had chucked a kunai trailing an exploding tag at the boulder meant for him. He flicked his finger, and a spike of sand rose with lightning speed from beneath the Shinobi’s feet.
He didn’t celebrate the kill, barely paying it any mind as he refocused on the three remaining Suna Elite. Zetsu had warned of four teams, which meant these Shinobi were just the distraction. The rest were doubtlessly flanking him, cutting off any escape.
Despite seeing the shuriken slicing through the air toward his head, the blades coated in a razor-thin layer of wind chakra, Gaara didn’t move. Sand tendrils erupted from underneath the grass, batting the shuriken aside.
Gaara ended his technique, and the sand boulder overhead immediately plummeted to earth. The sand flowed across the grass, forming a wave that rotated around Gaara protectively.
The Suna Elite had spread out, watching Gaara warily. In the same split second, Gaara and Zetsu noticed an almost invisible line of ninja wire floating near Gaara’s left shoulder. It was tied to the shuriken, which was now on a return trip as one of the Suna Elite yanked on the line.
Zetsu expected to sense Gaara’s focus shift the sand behind him to deal with the attack. However, it was Shukaku’s will that flowed through the sand. Zetsu watched in surprise as a protective wall arose behind the redhead, blocking the shuriken and severing the wire.
It seems you do care about this boy, Zetsu mused. He had started to suspect that might be the case. Over the last several weeks, he had more closely inspected the seal on Gaara’s abdomen.
It was an atrocity, held together almost solely by Gaara’s own will. However, Zetsu had noticed something that completely stumped him for some time. While Gaara kept Shukaku from taking control over his body through the power of will alone, there wasn’t anything stopping Shukaku from just… leaving.
Zetsu had struggled to believe it, but it was impossible Shukaku was unaware of it. The only explanation was that Shukaku stayed within Gaara because he wanted to be there. Zetsu still wasn’t sure what to think of the discovery.
His thoughts were interrupted, however, by the sudden appearance of another chakra signature. The Shinobi was hiding in the trees to Gaara’s right, watching. Zetsu honed his senses, and his immaterial eyes widened.
Someone is here, Gaara intoned, his tone mildly distracted. The Jinchūriki pushed forward with one hand, causing a wave of deadly spikes to erupt out of the ground. One of the Suna Elite was forced to break his charge and evade or be impaled.
[Naruto has found us!] Zetsu explained excitedly, but his current host didn’t bother to reply.
Gaara grimaced as one of the Shinobi broke through a wall of his sand with a sealing tag and dashed forward too close for comfort. For the first time, Gaara was forced to leap back, his sand coiling through the air in mesmerizing tendrils behind him. The Suna Elite’s outstretched hand narrowly missed his skin.
Sand exploded from beneath the Shinobi’s feet, wrapping around him in a second, but he was already gone. Gaara growled, a tendril of his sand batting aside a barrage of kunai.
He hated fighting Suna Elite. They had practiced how to subdue him, and while he sometimes managed to kill a few, they usually managed to seal him in the end. This was a losing battle.
Landing hard on the ground, Gaara skidded for several feet before coming to a stop. He took a quick step forward and threw his hands in opposite directions. Two of the waiting teams had finally decided to make their move, and Gaara dispatched sand to deal with both.
Gaara risked a glance toward the chakra signature Zetsu had claimed to be Naruto. The pale prince looked to be locked in combat with one of the Suna Elite in the trees, their blades clashing in rapid succession. Although the katana Naruto held seemed to be broken.
Instincts screamed in warning, and Gaara looked up. The Suna Elite was only a few feet overhead, his outstretched arm reaching for Gaara’s head. A sealing tag fluttered in the wind between the Shinobi’s fingers, and Gaara closed his eyes. He had learned the hard way that resisting the application of a seal only hurt more.
There was no point in resisting, he couldn’t move fast enough to evade, and his sand was useless against the seals. If he aimed for the Shinobi himself, he might be able to kill him, but he would be sealed regardless.
Gaara was prepared to feel darkness consume him, but instead, he felt something splatter against his cheek. Opening his eyes, he met the blank stare of a dead man.
The Suna Elite was suspended in midair by a thin shiny black spike. The spike was attached to Gaara’s left shoulder and had passed through the tag, the Shinobi’s palm, most of his arm, then through the man’s mouth and out the back of his head.
Gaara looked away, shaking his head and focusing on the Suna Elite still closing in. He ignored the thud of the dead Shinobi’s body as it hit the ground. In less than a few seconds, Gaara completed dozens of handseals.
“Rendan… Suna Shigure!”
Sand erupted from deep within the earth, spiraling around Gaara and pushing back the Suna Elite that had gotten far too close.
Potent demonic chakra thrummed through Gaara’s passageways, and he began the next stage of his technique. With the seals no longer being a concern, he could fight without impediment.
There was long-desired revenge in Gaara’s eyes that day.
Under different circumstances, Zetsu would never have allowed any of the Suna Elite to escape. His existence was one of his most closely guarded secrets. However, today he didn’t have such a luxury, and it wasn’t as important anymore.
He had acted as Gaara’s armor, the second layer of defense against the Suna Elite’s seals. Once Gaara had realized he was no longer in danger, he had slipped into madness that was purely his own.
It had only taken a few minutes for the battle, once stacked against the redheaded Jinchūriki, to turn completely. The last four Suna Elite had wisely fled for their lives.
Zetsu had kept a watchful eye on Naruto throughout the battle, but the young master had never been in any danger. The Suna Elite he’d crossed swords with had easily warded off his attacks but had made no strikes of his own. Zetsu suspected the Shinobi had orders to bring Naruto back to the Land of Wind unharmed.
However, despite his pointless battle, Zetsu noticed that Naruto had changed. There was smoldering anger in his eyes that Zetsu couldn’t identify, which worried him. His young master wasn’t prepared to deal with the forces within him, and it might not take much to push him past the point of no return.
The Suna Elite battling Naruto had taken the example of his comrades and fled before Gaara decided to deal with him next. With the danger passed, Naruto had walked over, coming to a stop twenty paces away.
The soothing wind blew the young prince’s long hair across his face, revealing numerous whitening strands. Zetsu wasn’t surprised to see that Naruto’s clothes were different, expensive, although he was curious about where his young master had gotten them.
Zetsu met Naruto’s pale eyes, his body half-formed across the left half of Gaara’s body. Gaara had folded his arms in front of him and was studying Naruto impassively. No one had spoken.
What happened to you, Naruto? Zetsu wondered. The boy carried himself differently than he had most of his life, it appeared less rigid, but it wasn’t relaxed. There was barely contained pain in Naruto’s eyes, but also resolve.
He barely resembled the frightened child who had run from the truth of who he was nearly a month ago.
Naruto took a deep breath, lifting the broken katana in his hands to slip it into the oaken sheath strapped to his back. The movement caused the white silk kimono he wore to shift slightly, revealing thick layers of bandages across his chest.
Zetsu’s eyes would have widened if they were physically capable of doing so. His young master had been wounded, and it looked serious.
“Naruto-sama,” Zetsu said, not trying to hide the relief he felt. The corners of Naruto’s mouth tilted up ever so slightly, and the boy nodded once.
Naruto held his hand out, “Come, Zetsu.”
Zetsu grinned wildly as he separated himself from Gaara’s body, his liquid-like form gliding across the lush grass toward his young master. He was full of questions and worry, but none of that could damper his excitement at hearing Naruto call to him.
The boy’s words had been an order.
It took only a second for Zetsu to cross half the distance, and then everything changed. Naruto’s eyes narrowed, and he drew the katana as he leaped back.
Naruto’s Byakugan flared to life, trained on the earth beneath his feet. Two tendrils of sand, nearly a foot in diameter, tunneled toward him with impossible speed.
In the same instant that Naruto reacted, Zetsu’s yellow eyes vanished into his inky blob-like form, and his body morphed. A gap opened within the center of his body, making way for the sand spike that erupted from the grass.
A blood-curdling scream filled the battle-torn field, and Gaara collapsed to his knees, his eyes wide and bulging.
Naruto flipped through the air, fleeing the two tendrils of sand that raced after him. Chakra hummed loudly as it coated the edge of his blade, and Naruto brought the weapon down on the first tendril, slicing through it. However, there was no evading the second one.
It wrapped around Naruto’s leg and slammed him to the ground. Air rushed from his lungs, and Naruto stared blankly at the sky, his eyes glazed from pain.
Zetsu darted across the grass, but he was too slow. Sand erupted in front of him, forming a wall from which numerous tendrils grew, each seeking to capture him. His amorphous form made evading all too easy, but he couldn’t get past the wall.
Maniacal laughter made Zetsu glance at the Jinchūriki, who had gotten to his feet. He was tilted to the side as if delirious, his head downcast and his shoulders heaving. A violent bloodthirsty exploded from Gaara, weighing down on everything.
Gaara cackled madly, his head lifting up as he glared at Naruto across the field with wide, bloodshot eyes. “Die!”
Closing his extended hand, Gaara screamed. “Sand Coffin!”
“No!” Zetsu shouted. A rod of ashen bone began to rapidly form on the surface of Zetsu’s shiny skin, poised to fire directly at Gaara’s chest.
Naruto screamed as his left leg was crushed underneath the force of Gaara’s technique. Zetsu forced his jutsu to form faster, unable to stop the sand that was quickly cocooning a struggling Naruto.
“What are you doing?!” Zetsu cried frantically. He didn’t have any choice; he had to kill Gaara.
The sand that now fully encased Naruto, obscuring him from view, fell to the ground in a heap. At the same time, Gaara fell to his knees. Zetsu didn’t hesitate, propelling himself across the sand-covered field toward Naruto, who was desperately gasping for air.
Gaara is resisting him. We have to get away! Zetsu thought—black tendrils grew from his amorphous form, giving him a vaguely spider-like appearance as he scurried toward Naruto.
Zetsu’s outreached tendrils touched Naruto’s shoulder for a split second, and then he was violently hurled in the opposite direction by a lightning-fast tendril of sand. It had arisen out of the ground at the last possible second and wrapped around him before he could merge with Naruto.
It had been perfectly timed, but Zetsu had been expecting that. For whatever reason, Shukaku was determined to kill Naruto, and that meant all bets were off. The fact that Gaara could resist Shukaku at all was astonishing, but it wouldn’t last.
With a cold grimace, Zetsu wrapped himself around the tendril holding him. He buried his own tendrils deep into the sand. Suffer, as I suffered…
Connecting with Shukaku’s chakra within the tendril, Zetsu latched onto it, holding it in place. He hadn’t gotten as much as he had wanted from Naruto, but it would be enough.
With the ability gifted solely to him by the Creator, Zetsu molded the energy he’d stolen from Naruto into an invasive weapon. Perhaps Shukaku realized what he was doing, but it was far too late.
Naruto’s potent power flooded through Zetsu’s tendrils and into Shukaku’s own chakra, traveling across the connection instantly and entering Shukaku himself.
Gaara’s inhuman scream was deafening as he stumbled backward a half dozen paces and collapsed to the ground. Unconscious.