"You're not getting promoted."

"Told you," Sasuke chirped.


"No 'buts,' Naruto!" Tsunade burst out. She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Look, between us, this is just a bad situation. Tensions are high right now between us and Kumo and I'm not willing to throw Iwa into the mix by promoting someone who's high up on the Tsuchikage's shit list. He's a crotchety old bastard and he takes things personally."

"I didn't do anything wrong though!"

"That's not the point!" the Hokage exclaimed. She reclined in her chair and rubbed her temples, facing Naruto plainly. Behind her, Jiraiya loomed large leaned up against the window, and was failing miserably at hiding his amusement at his student's expense. "You say you want to be Hokage, hmm? Here's your first lesson in international politics: don't needlessly antagonize your biggest enemy that's looking for an excuse to declare war."

"You can't declare war over a misunderstanding!"

"Say that to everyone who fought in the First Great War," Tsunade countered.

"And the Second," Jiraiya unhelpfully chimed in.

"And the Third," Kakashi muttered from behind Naruto.

"Are you even reading the history scrolls, dobe?"

You're not helping! "What's he so pissy about, anyway?" Naruto asked, subdued.

"The missive claims that you both instigated a conflict involving multiple high level ninjutsu, as well as were found in a – ahem – compromising position with the Tsuchikage's granddaughter that suggests you-"

"Debauched," Jiraiya choked out around a cackle that he skillfully turned into a cough.

"-had less than honorable intentions after having gotten the best of her," Tsunade finished, ignoring her tittering teammate. She rolled her eyes and tossed the scroll away as Naruto turned beet red. "You get the idea, brat."

"But I didn't – I wouldn't!"

"Of course you wouldn't and didn't. We know that. Do you wanna go all the way to Iwa to explain that to Onoki? Don't answer that!" she yelled when Naruto opened his mouth to agree.

"It's not particularly nice this time of year," Jiraiya said sagely. "Getting cold up north." Kakashi nodded his agreement, expression, as always, hidden beneath his half mask.

"Like I said, Naruto, it's not that you're being punished for doing your job. You intervened where you thought necessary and got caught up in what was looks like a front to get some info on your abilities. Now, regardless of getting suckered into a fairly obvious ploy-"


"-you managed to diffuse the situation without giving away too much of what you're capable of; if your mission report is accurate, it looks like you actually managed to show a decent bit of good judgment."

"Of course it's accurate," Naruto murmured, slightly mollified by the compliment in spite of himself.

"That judgement will, of course, count in your favor during your next performance review six months from now. All of that said, you'll remain at Tokubetsu status for the moment," Tsunade finished. She sighed. "And before you start complaining, we don't like this any more than you do."

"Sarutobi-sensei hated the bastard for a reason, gaki. He's narrow-minded, petty, and holds a grudge like no one else I've ever had the misfortune of meeting," Jiraiya said seriously. He cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. "Well, 'cept maybe Hanzo, but I digress. Unfortunately, he's also one of the smartest men on the continent and in charge of our biggest rival. He's hated Konoha for longer than me and hime here have been alive; this is how he digs at us without being overly antagonistic."

"And we're just gonna ignore the fact that she literally started everything!?"

"You're going with the 'she started it' argument?" Sasuke cackled.

"You're missing the bigger picture, Naruto," Kakashi spoke up gently. "Her mission report says plainly that you started the conflict just as surely as yours pins the blame on her. The point, as Hokage-sama said earlier, is that we're not willing to escalate an international incident. It's not worth it."

Naruto exhaled hard, blowing an errant lock of hair off of his forehead. "Maa, I get it," he grumbled. "Stupid Iwa bitch."

"You should probably get used to her if you want the hat, kiddo. Word on the street is she's Onoki's likely replacement as Tsuchikage," Jiraiya piped. "Eighteen years old, already a jonin, and rumor has it that the old man's been training her himself."

The blond Tokubetsu jonin just groaned.

"That reminds me: Kakashi, do me a favor and run over to ANBU headquarters and get them to update her file with the information from Naruto's report," Tsunade said.

"Will do."

"Back on topic. Naruto, don't get yourself all worked up over this," she consoled, favoring the teen with a small smile. "You've been given two weeks' paid leave for completing your border assignment. Take a vacation and bury your head in the sand somewhere. This'll all blow over soon."

Naruto returned the smile with what was more grimace than grin until Tsunade's words registered fully. He cocked his head to the side and turned to Jiraiya.

"How's Suna this time of year?"


"You're friends with this guy, why exactly?"

He's changed from when you fought him! "Thanks so much for letting me stay with you, Gaara," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head as he lounged in the Godaime's office. "And again for the escort, Temari-san. Didn't mean to cancel your plans in Konoha."

"Nonsense, Naruto," Gaara said softly as Temari waved him off from behind her brother. "You are always more than welcome to stay with us in Suna. And my sister was long overdue on her return home. I am glad she was available to help convince Tsunade-dono that visiting was a good idea, however."

"Think he knows his sister is sleeping with the louse?"

Course not! Shikamaru's still alive. "Ahh, baa-chan was just overreacting. I can totally take care of myself."

"Iwa begs to differ."

"Regardless of your skill, I appreciate the Hokage taking the threat of Akatsuki seriously," the Kazekage said formally, as he was wont to do. "I fear that she and I are the only two that do. The overtures that I have made to the other Kage have been met with nothing but apathy."

"What do you mean?" It was, of course, natural that Gaara would take the Akatsuki seriously. They were hunting him just as surely as they were Naruto.

"My letters to the Raikage and Tsuchikage have been returned with dismissive answers. The Tsuchikage claims that they are merely mercenaries, and the Raikage seems to view them as no threat at all. The Mizukage did not even send a response."

"Probably because the whole country is fucked," Naruto said lowly. He and Jiraiya had snuck in and out of Water country a few times during their year abroad. If Kiri was anything like the rest of the nation, whoever the Mizukage was certainly had their hands full.

"Indeed." Gaara nodded, no doubt thinking of his own intelligence reports concerning his most distant rival. "Is there any word of Akatsuki's movements from Jiraiya-sama's network? They have been quiet for over two years now."

Naruto shook his head. "Ero-sennin's last report was over a year ago. Just confirming a new member from Hot Springs. He thinks they're operating outta a border country though; that's just his thinking, not confirmed."

"That would make sense," Temari said. "Hard to see a group of high profile criminals having a home base in any of the Great Five."

"I agree. However, the Tsuchikage's intransigence bothers me," Gaara stated. He made four hand seals and the doorway flashed blue-ish green in Naruto's periphery. Fuuinjutsu. Probably a privacy seal.

"Think you can get ahold of it? Would be useful down the road," Sasuke commented seriously.

I'll ask Ero-sennin. Gaara's done too much for us already, he thought as the redhead continued, "One of our scouts happened on some information that hints at a link between Iwa and Akatsuki from some years ago. Payment was sent to a corporation that we know is controlled by the bounty hunter Kakuzu for some services rendered."

Naruto's ears perked up. "Slimy bastard! First he accuses me of taking advantage of his granddaughter and now this!"

"Technically, he worked with Akatsuki before accusing you." The Uchiha was unmoved by Naruto's mental equivalent of the middle finger.

If Gaara had eyebrows, they likely would've been reaching toward his hairline. Temari, who had heard about Naruto's woes while escorting him to Suna, covered her mouth but couldn't hide the laughter dancing in her eyes.

"You did not specify the purpose of your trip beyond having leave. I did not realize we were harboring a wanted man, Temari," Gaara said dryly. His sister snickered.

"Did he just make a joke?" Sasuke asked, floored.

I told you! He's changed.


Don't be salty just cause he kicked your ass.

"I had the situation under control."

Oh, cause I totally didn't see Sakura-chan pinned to a tree and you about to use Oro-teme's hooptie-ass cursed seal as a last resort.

The Uchiha was silent, and Naruto fought a grin. Score one for the good guy.

"Regardless of your status, Naruto," Gaara was saying. "Suna is happy to have you. I've arranged for Baki to meet with you in the morning two days from now. He is excited to see how your Fuuton chakra training has-"

The redhead stopped speaking abruptly as the sound of three explosions echoed through the roof.

"That's…not normal, right?" Naruto asked rhetorically as Gaara whirled out of his chair to survey his village.

"Quite the opposite," the Kazekage said, voice barely a whisper.

He has three roof guards, the blond realized with mounting trepidation.

"Temari, contact the ANBU. Send a squad to the gates. We have an intruder." The pig-tailed jonin disappeared in a shunshin at her brother's words, leaving the two jinchurriki alone. Naruto joined his counterpart by the window a moment later.

"What's the situation?"

"Very few birds can survive the desert," the redhead stated plainly. Naruto blinked and followed his friend's gaze skyward, Sharingan spinning to life. "What do your eyes see, Naruto?"

A white bird drifted lazily over the village. Naruto's muscles tensed involuntarily and he felt goosebumps erupt across his skin. "Black cloak, red clouds," he breathed. Subconsciously, he begant o circulate his chakra.

"And so it begins." Gaara whipped his Kazekage robes off in one, smooth motion, revealing his battle gear. "Your visit is well timed, Naruto. Will you fight with me?"

The cloak Naruto had worn for his journey through the desert was on the floor before the question had been asked, revealing the standard blue Konoha fatigues and green flak vest. "Don't ask questions you already know the answer to." The two disappeared and reappeared on the roof, Naruto in a swirl of smoke and Gaara in a tornado of sand.

They were greeted by three headless guards and a rapidly coalescing pool of blood and brain matter. "Very precise explosives," Sasuke commented.

"Deidara," Naruto declared. "Former Iwa shinobi. Uses some sort of explosive clay for his attacks."

"A long range specialist most likely," Gaara said, still watching the white bird as it arced in the sky over his home.

"Who can do a lot of damage from a distance…"

"Yes. I must protect the village proper. Naruto-"

"Yeah I'll drive him out. He'll have a partner, though. Not sure I can take 'em both."

"Once I am certain he cannot focus on damaging the village, I will join you."

"How long do you need?"

"Five minutes." An eternity for shinobi, let alone S-ranked criminals.

The blond sped through seals and bit his thumb. "Make it three and you've got a deal. Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

Gaara disappeared in a swirl of sand as a black skinned toad taller than Naruto appeared in a blast of smoke. "You have need of assistance, Naruto-san?"

"Need to knock that bird over there outta the sky, Gamakuro. Think you can help a ninja out?"

"With pleasure."

"Don't lose sight of our objective here, Naruto," Sasuke cautioned, all business.

Maa, don't get your panties in a twist. We'll take one of these fuckers alive, don't you worry. "Let's get wild!" he screamed to the heavens.


Deidara had expected the Kazekage to be drawn out by the first explosions on top of his administrative building. Their intel said that the boy worked late every night, unable to sleep for fear of the Ichibi's emergence. And, regardless of his impulses, he wasn't there to fight an entire village; the leader had been very clear on that front.

"Too much collateral damage will draw undue attention from the other major villages. A surgical extraction of a kage can be written off – it has been before – but mass damage will cause other villages to begin to scrutinize us more closely. That is unacceptable."

There was only one thing for it, then. "If that didn't get his attention, C3 definitely will, hmm!" He dropped his hands to his pouches full of clay, feeling twin mouths gobble up enough explosive material to level a building. "Sorry, leader-sama, but it can't be helped."

He was about to release his second most powerful explosive when movement on the ground caught his attention. Closing his right eye, he channeled chakra to the scope on his left and focused in on a rapidly moving shape that was...hopping from roof to roof? "Is that a…frog?"

Deidara didn't get the time to further contemplate the oddity before it suddenly launched itself on a collision course with his bird. "Shit!" He banked hard to his right, anchoring himself with chakra as the black blur clipped the left wing on its way by.

It took him only a second to right his creation, steering it back on course and searching the shadows frantically for the creature. He was untouchable in the air against all but the largest of summons and that old bastard Onoki. Adjusting his scope to its night setting, the world in his left eye faded to green and black. "Gotcha, hmm!" he cried, zeroing in on the creature as it hopped from shadow to shadow, its dark skin a perfect camouflage in the rapidly falling twilight.

A manipulation of his chakra halted the bird just as the creature leapt for him again, and it flew past in a shadowy blur. Deidara dug into his pouches once more, scope carefully monitoring the frog's progress as it descended. He angled himself on an intersecting trajectory and let loose with his C2 into the path of its fall.

"Let's see what you think of my art, hmm! Katsu!" he yelled, clapping his hands together in the tairitsu no in. Explosions peppered the air around him like fireworks, violently buffeting the frog off course.

It expanded momentarily, puffing up and spitting a blue and green shape at Deidara. The blond skipped backwards on his bird as the airborne shape latched onto his creation with one hand with chakra and flipped itself to a standing position. He started, eyes seeing but not believing every Iwa-nin's nightmare in front of him. "Yellow devil," he breathed, taking in the blue shirt and pants covered by a green vest worn by the blond shinobi standing on the head of his bird.

"Eh, they tell me I look more like my mom, actually." Deidara had a moment to comprehend the glowing red Sharingan eyes staring him down and then suddenly he was hurtling end over end through the air at breakneck pace, all the air gone from his lungs.

He gasped frantically as his world spun, chakra instincts working overtime to right himself before he crashed to his death. He managed to control his spin after three perilous seconds, and, bereft of other options, reached for his explosive clay. This is really gonna hurt, Deidara thought, dropping C1 bombs behind himself.

Five small explosions rocked his body, but the concussive force had both righted him and tossed him upward, giving him enough time to survey his surroundings.

Bastard blew me right outta the village! he realized, seeing nothing but the desert's sand below him as he began to fall. Suna's massive walls loomed large in front of him, but he was powerless to stop his flight. Resigning himself to sustaining more blows from his own art, he reached into his pouches once more when tendrils of black sand reached out of nowhere and tightly latched on to him. His heartrate spiked, a singular moment of unadulterated panic seizing him before he realized who was holding him.

The sand slowed his fall to a gentle descent, and he came to soft halt feet first. "Sasori-no-danna…thank you," he said, discarding his now tattered cloak.

"I see your infernal art was not sufficient to capture the Kazekage."

Deidara bit back his scathing retort. I'll show you infernal! But now was not the time to debate the merits of his ephemeral blasts. "A Konoha ninja got in the way, hmm. The Kazekage didn't even come out," he said, trying to hide his annoyance. His plan had been perfect!

"Konoha ninja…."

"He used some sort of frog, yeah." He felt his hackles rise. "Blond hair; looked like the Yellow Devil. And had those damned Sharingan eyes, hmm…"

Sasori was quiet for a few moments. "Uzumaki Naruto. The Nine Tails' host. He wasn't supposed to be here," he growled. Deidara knew his senpai was in charge of much of Akatsuki's intelligence network; the only thing that got on his nerves more than misinformation was waiting.

"He caught me by surprise. I can take him though, hmm!"

"We didn't come here to fight two jinchurriki, Deidara. He's Itachi's target for a reason."

"I can take him down just as easy as Itachi!" he exclaimed. "I trained to fight the Sharingan-"

"Regardless of my better judgment," Sasori interrupted. "It looks like you'll have your chance."

Deidara whirled around to see his bird gliding lazily toward them. The familiar white hot rage that burned through him whenever he thought of Itachi bubbled to the surface. "Bastard! He has no appreciationfor the beauty of my work. Katsu!"

His bird detonated in a blinding flash of splendor, blanketing their vision with smoke. He laughed uproariously. "What do you think of my art now?" he screamed.

His senses pricked in alarm, and he leapt right while Sasori skidded left as the blond Konoha ninja dropped out of the sky like a meteor, a swirling blue sphere the size of his head in hand. The jutsu detonated, kicking up waves of superheated sand that peppered Deidara's unprotected skin with millions of tiny lacerations as he was forced to shield his face.

"Maa, it's a bit loud, if you ask me," Naruto quipped, standing equidistantly in the middle of the two Akatsuki members.

"Uzumaki Naruto," Sasori said. "Apprentice to the Copy Ninja and Konoha's Toad Sage…"

"Heh, you've heard of me. Then you know you're about to get your asses whooped."

"Quite the opposite. It was foolish of you to think you could fight the two of us." Sasori shifted minutely, and twin puppets with blades for arms burst from the sand on either side of Naruto. "I expected better."

The blades glinted in the twilight as they made for the blonde's limbs, when suddenly a cocoon of sand rose around the teen, deflecting the blades with a CLANG. Sasori had no time to reposition his puppets before the sand wrapped itself around and crushed them to splinters.

"Thank you for your intervention, Naruto," a soft voice spoke. The young frame of the Kazekage materialized from an airborne swirl of sand, arms crossed. "The village is secure."

"Don't mention it, Gaara. Always down to smack around some trash shinobi," the blond said, lips peeled back in a feral grin. He nodded his head toward Sasori. "Got one of yours here too."

The Kazekage's eyes flickered to Sasori's hunched form. "Akasuna no Sasori. I thank you for providing me with the opportunity to restore the honor you stole from Suna when you murdered the Sandaime."

Deidara felt himself tense in anticipation as Sasori actually chuckled. "For my name to be known by a kid like you…I'm honored, Kazekage-dono," he sneered. The specter of the Sandaime Kazekage puppet emerged behind him. "As you say, I murdered the Sandaime, even with his Iron Sand techniques. He was a considerable challenge, but he was the greatest kage this village has ever known. You, boy, stand no chance."

"Naruto, Deidara is yours in this fight. I will deal with my home's criminal myself."

"Heh, whatever you say, Gaara," Naruto said, turning glowing eyes on his blond counterpart. Deidara felt himself grin even as he averted his eyes, dropping his hands to his pouches to ready his offensive.

"The Sandaime was a considerable shinobi," Gaara said. "He modeled his techniques after the Shukaku's powers. But he only fought in tandem with the desert." He turned his palms skyward and the sand beneath Deidara's feet began to shift.

"My father sealed the Ichibi inside me the day I was born." A tsunami of sand that blocked the moon's light and cast the desert into shadow arose as Gaara, fury written across his face, thrust his arms toward the sky. Deidara leapt back, parrying the sudden slash of Naruto's kunai as the Kazekage roared, "With it, I am the desert!"


Earth-based clay. Shouldn't be too tough.

"You're getting better," Sasuke said with no hint of his usual sarcasm as Naruto bobbed and wove through a series of explosions powerful enough to tear his arms off.

Damn right I am! A surge of chakra called lightning to the blonde's palm and he cast his arm outwards. Electric needles so small that only his Sharingan could clearly see intercepted a cluster of flying insect-shaped clay, dropping them to the ground uselessly.


Get close enough to knock his bitch-ass out? Naruto replied cheekily, blurring into a shunshin that carried him out of the way of a larger detonation. He sighed when Sasuke didn't respond – he could feel the glare his friend was sending him. Gonna maneuver him far enough away from Gaara and that other guy then hit him with the new Rasengan.

Sasuke's sigh was nearly as explosive as the man they were fighting. "Advanced battle tactics are completely lost on you, aren't they, dobe?" he asked rhetorically.

"Not lost, bastard. Just ain't got time for 'em!" Naruto cried. He ducked under a clay construct – this one shaped like a spider. The blond pivoted and extended his right arm behind him, a burst of wind chakra emanating from his palm blowing the explosive too far away to be any issue and launching him toward Deidara in the same move.

White lightning leapt to his left hand as he closed on his fellow blond. The long-haired nuke-nin hastily ducked Naruto's head-level slash but couldn't avoid the right-handed uppercut that caught him under the chin. He jerked upward just in time for Naruto to drive the Raikiri cleanly through his chest, and immediately detonated in the flash that lit the night's sky for miles around.

The real Naruto grimaced tightly as his clone's memories drilled their way into his mind, rising silently from the sand. "Crafty one, aren't ya?" he called. A faint breeze tickled the back of his neck, causing him to grin widely as he whipped around, eyes skyward.

His quarry stood atop another bird-shaped construct, face thunderous. "You think you're so cool, hmm? And those eyes…always judging me and my art! You've got no appreciation!" A manic grin took the place of the palpable rage. "Allow me to educate you then, yeah!" Deidara threw his hands outward, palms down, and from them came a veritable storm of clay.

"I'm starting to think this guy's not the most mentally stable," Naruto murmured, flipping through seals.

"Cause you're in a place to judge, dobe?"

"I was doing just fine until you showed up in my head, asshole." Raiton: Gian! A bolt of pure lightning exploded from Naruto's mouth that tore through the falling explosives, missing Deidara by a hair's breadth as the nuke-nin banked hard out of the way.

"And who's fault is that?"

"You told me to take them!" Three kage bunshin popped into existence as Naruto formed a cross-shaped seal, each disappearing in a shunshin to follow Deidara as the former Iwa-nin maneuvered his bird.

"You didn't have to kill me, now did you?" Sasuke returned without missing a beat, but there was no real heat behind the words.

Naruto still felt them like a punch to his gut, but he pushed the guilt to the side with practiced ease as he felt his clones dispelled by explosives that had been planted in the sand. "I'll be sure to let the next guy who tries to punch a Chidori through my chest go right ahead, then. And aren't we getting a bit off topic, teme?"

He felt Sasuke shrug indifferently. "Merely testing your ability to split focus."

"And how'm I doing?"

"Mediocre at best per usual. There's a mine planted there, by the way." Naruto blasted himself off the sand without missing a beat, the expelled chakra detonating the mine in an explosion that might've even killed him had he been hit by it.

Feel like these explosions are getting bigger.

"He knows you have the elemental advantage. He can't waste time and chakra on herding you with small ones anymore. Probably betting on the Kyubi healing enough damage to take you alive." The Uchiha paused. "Or he's mad enough to just not care anymore."

Guessing the second one, Naruto thought, channeling wind chakra to his feet. A sudden gale propelled him skyward and he torqued his body into a spin, grabbing a kunai and casting lightning chakra down its blade. Blood red eyes gifted him with a vision of where the bird would be a moment in time before it actually was, and he let fly his kunai with pinpoint accuracy.

Deidara dropped to all fours on his bird to avoid the projectile that would've taken him between the eyes, and his bird arced upwards still as Naruto fell back to the earth.

"Aim for the bird next time, idiot. You're wasting chakra chasing him across the sky."

Like I ain't got the chakra to burn. And I got a plan, don't trip.

"Does it involve quicksand?" Sasuke asked rhetorically as the blond landed softly but immediately began sinking rapidly into the desert floor.

"Huh. Wasn't expecting that," Naruto said, substituting out with a hastily formed clone just in time to avoid being blown to bits.

"Just because he doesn't favor standard earth manipulation doesn't mean he can't use it," Sasuke chided. "Elemental advantage or not, he's still dangerous, Naruto."

"Yes, sensei," the blond sneered, though he reigned himself in, having scolded himself for ignoring the obvious conclusion even before his friend.

"So…about that plan?"

Wait for it…Naruto flipped through seals faster than the eye could see, a second Raiton: Gian screaming from his lips.

Deidara dodged the second with as much aplomb as the first, his bird banking hard left into a position nearly directly above the blond tokubetsu jonin –

And directly into the path of Gamakuro's sickle.

The nuke-nin screamed in surprise as the forgotten summon cut through his construct with contemptible ease, a spray of blood disappearing into the night as his leg was sliced to the bone. The clay bird careened wildly, diving hard out of control back towards the waiting desert floor.

Naruto grinned savagely as he formed a familiar cross-shaped seal with his hands. Three more clones burst into existence with nary a wisp of smoke; they tore off into the night on an intersecting path with the dropping Deidara, the original blond following them at a more sedate pace.

Didn't see that one coming, did ya?

"What are you implying, dobe?" Sasuke's voice was perfectly neutral.

Uh-huh, you forgot about him too! Naruto cackled at his friend's silence. That totally woulda worked on you and you know it!

"Tch. Don't flatter yourself." The Uchiha trailed off before, "…the timing was well done," he allowed, all reluctance.

Naruto managed to contain himself as he sped through three seals and kawarimi'd with one of his clones that was currently engaging the grounded Akatsuki member in taijutsu. He darted in, capitalizing on a momentary opening one of his other clones had left him, kicking out at Deidara's injured left leg.

The nuke-nin managed to redirect the kick that would've dropped him with his other foot, but was left off balance, an opportunity a second clone wasted no time in taking advantage of. A drop kick to the chest sent the former Iwa-nin skidding across the desert sand, flailing away with a shouted curse.

"That's not very nice!" Naruto heard one of his clones call, rushing after his quarry. The real blond winced as his Sharingan picked up the momentary buildup of chakra half a moment before a mine that hadn't been there a moment before detonated.

Another clone popped into the space the other had vacated without missing a beat while the split second memory of being blown up wormed its way into Naruto's mind. Injured and nearly cornered and he still managed to place that. These guys are fucking nuts, he thought. He felt Sasuke's wordless agreement as he strafed wide, watching two clones close on the still hobbled Deidara in a pincer maneuver.

The first landed a cross punch to the blonde's right shoulder, spinning him round and into the path of the second, who sent a fist laden with wind chakra at his face. A hasty duck saved his head from being torn from his shoulders and Deidara limped backwards awkwardly.

The second clone didn't hesitate in rushing forward, and was rewarded for his effort by a kunai to the throat. Deidara spun on his one good leg, hurling the knife savagely at the first clone that dodged to the left with little effort. Muted surprised and pain shoved made itself apparent in Naruto's mind a moment later, however, a thrown explosive having detonated right in the first clone's face.

"My art won't be overcome by a coward's clones, yeah!" Deidara shouted, spit flying from his mouth.

"Think he'd appreciate the irony of an exploding clone?" Sasuke asked, irritated.

Probs nah, but it may shut him up.

"Whatever. Finish him already."

Calm down, bastard. I'm on it. And I thought you were itching for a fight, hmm? Naruto returned, circling chakra around his outstretched right palm. Let's give him something to think about. The blond split his focus for a half second, reaching out with wind chakra and punching out with his left hand. Blood red eyes watched in satisfaction as pure wind formed a quasi-fist and caught the unsuspecting nuke-nin across the face.

Deidara was lifted from his feet by the force of the blow, and Naruto blasted forward as the Rasengan whirled to life in his hand. "We're trying to take him alive!" Sasuke bellowed in his head, but the blond paid his friend no mind as he slammed his father's creation into the sand at Deidara's feet.

The spiraling sphere detonated with a clap like thunder, hurling the former Iwa-nin into the moonlit sky, shattered glass following in his wake. Naruto felt his lips peel back in a feral grin as a sudden charge filled the dry desert air, the chirping of a thousand birds battling for dominance with the sound of a hundred blades grinding against each other.

The clone he had originally substituted with appeared from nowhere above the still rising Deidara, a sphere of roiling electricity thrumming with power in his palm. "Raiton: Rasengan," Naruto breathed, eyes wide with wonder as his creation was slammed into the nuke-nin's chest.

Silence reigned supreme for a moment suspended in time before the jutsu discharged in a vibrating supernova of chakra that lit the desert sky for miles. A deafening thunderclap caused Naruto to wince at the same moment the feeling of being electrocuted in the center of a lightning storm made itself apparent. "Fucking ow…" he murmured.

"If you killed him–"

"We tested it, princess. He'll be fine, calm your tits," Naruto responded easily, watching as the supernova bulged with a second clap of thunder before disappearing into nothingness as suddenly as it had appeared. "Well, maybe not fine fine. But alive. Probably," he hastily amended as the former Iwa-nin dropped bonelessly out of the sky.

Naruto glided across the sand with ease born of practice toward the Akatsuki member. He flipped through seals and expelled a column of wind chakra that formed itself into a facsimile of a pillow just in time to keep the fall from shattering Deidara's spine. He came upon the downed criminal a moment later, stopping a few paces from the unconscious man when he felt the hairs on his arms stand up. "That's a lotta power."

"Is he alive?" Sasuke asked impatiently.

"Chill, teme. You can see his breathing as easy as I can," Naruto soothed, his still spinning dojutsu catching the tiniest rise and fall of Deidara's chest. Beneath the surface of his skin, however, his chakra roiled like boiling water within his coils. "Huh, whattaya think that means?"

"The electrified chakra that's probably frying his internal organs? Probably not the best for him, idiot! Use the damned seal already!"

Alright, alright…Naruto dug through his vest for a second before pulling out a slip of paper Jiraiya had given him. He formed a clone and handed the specially crafted fuuinjutsu to it, ignoring the baleful look his doppelganger gave him. "Don't gimme that look," he chided, shooing the duplicate in Deidara's direction.

The clone sighed theatrically, but turned and slapped the seal on the Akatsuki member's chest with a yelp as the residual electricity shocked hard enough to dispel him. Black script rippled outward from the seal after a second, and Naruto watched in satisfaction as the roiling chakra calmed to something approaching normal as pure white cloth expanded and wrapped the unconscious man like a mummy.

"Mission accomplished. Happy now?"

"I'm sure you'll find a way to fuck it up somehow," Sasuke groused, but his voice belied his emotions – he was clearly pleased.

"Yatta!" Naruto called, fist pumping. "One down, nine to go."

"Hn. If you hurry, you might even be able to get the second before he gets away from the Kazekage."

The blond paused for a second, blinking, before, "Oh shit! Gaara!" He turned around, spying two massive columns of sand battling far closer to Suna proper.

Wasting no time, he sprinted off in their direction.


He paused at the edge of a sandstorm, the desert sand a whirlwind warring for dominance with the iron powder that had made the Sandaime Kazekage so fearsome. Sharingan spinning widly, Naruto could see the sharpened particles clashing like thrown kunai in midair. "That'll cut me to shreds," he mused.

"Hn. The Kazekage seems to be holding his own. He'll likely be overcome if it goes on for much longer, though," Sasuke observed; Naruto spied the outline of a puppet, a thin string of chakra connecting it to the unseen Sasori within the storm, dashing unhindered through the maelstrom, only to be crushed to dust by the desert beneath its feat.

Keeping Gaara occupied with defending the storm while sending puppets out to split his focus…damn. The Shukaku's ultimate defense could defend against most threats that slipped by Gaara's awareness, but it wasn't impregnable. "And he can't exactly call for backup in there with this storm…"

"Meanwhile his puppets can operate unimpeded by the storm. It's a perfect tactical move. Isolate the Kazakage and split his focus for an extended period of time."

"Really not the time for you to cream yourself over sound battle tactics, teme," Naruto growled.

"You have a plan, then?"

Naruto's body began to crackle as lightning chakra expelled itself from his tenketsu. Let's just be glad I've got a fuck-ton of chakra. The raikiri leapt to his right palm a moment later, and he wasted no time slamming it to the desert in front of him.

"And the Kyubi to repair any damage that you do to yourself," Sasuke murmured as lightning exploded across the sand and into the waiting storm, the charged chakra clearing a momentary path through the whirlwind.

Yeah…that too. The blond burst forward in a blindingly fast body flicker towards a shadowy figure that his Sharingan could just barely make out. Pain greeted him immediately; the raikiri nagashi was an offensive ninjutsu, and while it could keep the worst of the knife-like sand away so long as he maintained it, it couldn't stop everything.

"Gaara!" he called through gritted teeth as he appeared alongside his friend, feeling blood trickle into his mouth from the tiny cuts opening along his exposed skin. Maybe Kakashi's on to something with that mask…

The Kazekage stood with his feet spread wide, sunk low into a defensive stance with his palms pressed together in front of him. A slightly thicker haze of sand surrounded him, Naruto saw, repelling the sharpened iron dust with relative ease. A moment later, the haze rose in front of him too, and he released his lightning with a minute sigh of relief.

"Your timing is impeccable, per usual, Naruto," Gaara greeted calmly. The blond saw sweat positively drenching him, however, belying his tone. "I cannot advance so long as the puppet of the Sandaime is active."

"Heh, I gotchu. I can't use jutsu in the storm, but I can get to it."

"It will be well defended. And Sasori is a master of splitting his focus."

"Who d'you think you're dealing with? I got this," Naruto boasted easily.

He reached into his weapons pouch and withdrew a small scroll. A bit of blood from his face later, he held a simple chokuto. Electrifying his chakra once more, Naruto stepped back out into the storm.

This would be so much easier if you let me


Soooo much easier, though, Sasuke, the blond thought, darting sideways, eyes searching for the epicenter of the iron storm within the whirlwind. I could totally wrap this up in, like, a minute.

"And if the puppeteer manages to escape, Itachi knows our secret. Unacceptable." Sasuke's voice brooked no argument.

Not that Naruto cared. If he's as smart as everyone thinks he is, he probably already suspects–

"Suspecting is far different from knowing, dobe! You remember our deal, don't you?" the Uchiha all but growled.

The blond winced, and not from the dust that was slowly cutting him to shreds beneath his clothing. Yeah.

"So drop it and focus on putting down the puppeteer."

Naruto didn't respond, his eyes finally keying in on a concentration of dust less than a hundred meters to his right. A concentration of dust that had a singular chakra string attached to it that led back into the abyss. Gotcha, fucker!

Heedless of the pain, he sprinted forward. He managed to get within thirty meters when a man burst from the sand in front of him. Red eyes narrowed as the man sped through hand seals – It's got chakra? – and spat a bullet of wind at him.

Motherfucker! Naruto leapt sideways to avoid the bullet, and was immediately besieged by another man that sprung from the sand beneath his feet.

The blond caught a punch and pulled the arm toward him to step inside the puppet's guard. Only reflexes born of hours upon hours of training allowed him to keep his feet as the hand he held was completely detached from the puppet's arm. His eyes widened in momentary shock before he was forced to twist his body to the right and downwards to avoid a column of flame that exploded out of the space where the hand had just been.

"What a versatile technique," he heard Sasuke say, impressed.

Not. The. Time.

Rotating fully, Naruto used his momentum to stab his chokuto into the sand. A blast of electricity surged upwards out of the sand and engulfed the human-like puppet. It froze in place, spasming, and the blond ripped his blade from the ground and sliced it in half at the waist a moment later.

Next! he thought savagely. Dodging a second bullet of wind by ducking under it, Naruto circulated his chakra and sprinted forward in a blindingly fast body flicker. His speed did the trick, and whether it was because it was just a puppet or because Sasori couldn't react in time from such a distance didn't matter to the blond as he cleanly sliced the construct in half at the waist.

Now for this asshole. He blasted forward, chokuto held in a reverse grip, and leapt at the Sandaime Kazekage.

The puppet strafed sideways easily, and Naruto saw the chakra string that attached it to Sasori thicken almost imperceptibly. "He's likely controlling it more closely now," Sasuke mused.

Which is terrifying but what we want, Naruto thought, diving out of the way of a spear of iron that coalesced from the airborne particles. Because this shit ain't slicing me to pieces anymore.

He formed a ram seal and transmuted his chakra into wind. His ears popped as the air pressure quadrupled half a moment before the wind howled to his will.

Fuuton: Atsugai!

The surrounding air exploded into a white miasma as wind with the strength of a tornado suddenly screamed into existence. Sand and iron dust alike were cast upwards and away from him as the destructive winds tore through the desert with ease.

"Now if only you could make it cut, too," Sasuke said blithely as the haze from Naruto's jutsu began to dissipate.

The wind can literally crush stone, twatface.

"Merely making an observation. No need to get so defensive."

I hate you so much.

The pressure winds had done their job; the air, once saturated with a combination of Gaara's sand and the Sandaime Kazekage's iron, was clear. The puppet had been spared from the worst of the damage, somehow, as it floated behind the hunched form of Sasori, the man's now tattered and shredded cloak hanging by a thread.

"You reformed the dunes," the Godaime murmured as he appeared next to Naruto in a swirl of sand.

"Subtlety's never been my strong suit. Plan?"

"Engaging the Sandaime did not work as well as I'd hoped last time. If you can hold it off, I will deal with the rest of Sasori's creations."


"He's not wrong." Which meant that the Uchiha simply hadn't managed to come up with anything better in the time they'd been talking.

Naruto sheathed the chokuto and clipped it to his waist. Grinning savagely, he whirled his chakra around his palm and the sound of a hundred blades grinding on whetstones filled the night air once more. "Let's get to it, then!"

He readied his chakra –

And the desert was filled with iron dust enough to blot out the moon above their heads. "Shit!" Naruto yelled, but Gaara was already in motion.

Sand rose with an unspoken command as the Kazekage lifted his right hand skyward, his left rising to cover his left eye. A cocoon of hardened sand encased the two jinchurriki just in time to keep them from being shredded to bits by the falling knives made of iron.

They pounded the shield relentlessly, sounding like hail upon metal as they fell, but Gaara's sand held firm.

"What do you see?" the blond all but screamed over the cacophony.

The Godaime was silent for a beat, before, "He's escaping."

"What! What about the puppet? There's no way he can control it over distance."

"The Sandaime is still here, controlling the iron, but it is slowing. I suspect Sasori will summon it to him once the jutsu has run its course," Gaara said.

"Tactical retreat. He realized the two of you in tandem was too much to handle and didn't want to end up like his partner."

"We have to go after him!" the blond burst out. He crossed his hands in a seal and three clones popped into existence.

Gaara shook his head. "He'll have laid traps to slow us. And I suspect that he knows this desert better than I, given that he fought in the Third War. Send your clones to track him, yes, but I do not expect they will have much success; even with your eyes."

The kage bunshin disappeared in pursuit, and Naruto barely held himself back from stomping his foot in anger. Finally a shot at these bastards and one is gonna get away, just like that. He knew his friend was right, however, even in his frustration; fighting an enemy on their terms was a stupid mistake, let alone against S-ranked shinobi.

"Quit your whining, dobe. We got one of them," Sasuke said as the iron hail subsided.

Never knew you to be looking at the bright side, he groused in return, but felt his irritation slipping away. One was still a good catch. A great catch, even, given his and Sasuke's plans. And if his clones found anything, he'd be ready to give chase.


The blond simply sighed as Gaara's shield dropped. An empty desert greeted his eyes, mercifully free of chakra and puppets. "Well…that was fun," he said, hand rising to the back of his head.

"Indeed," his friend returned, the smallest of smiles playing across his lips. "I expect you'll have much to report about your vacation here, Naruto."

The blond blinked, then cursed. "The paperwork is gonna be a bitch…"


Shit is fun to write.