Betaread by Skye


Lest you fade here all alone

Chapter 15


Mountains, rivers, forests were always in line with the laws of the cosmos. Various elements aligned, excess and impurities chipped away as years passed, and paths opened up for the natural energy to flow. It circled through these formations until it bent the natural laws and birthed an anomaly: a section of forest from which no one returned, a cave which transported intruders to a place unknown, a blessed land where any plants grew double their normal size.

A long time ago, humans watched the world around them and learned from it. As they discovered explanations behind those anomalies, they learned the laws and found ways to replicate them through the application of chakra: barriers that barred passages to unwelcomed visitors, summoning formulas to call battle animals for aid in fights, the natural energy condensing arrays that enriched the soil and stimulated the growth of crops. Eventually, a new branch of jutsu— Fuuinjutsu—was established.

When the Uzumaki nomads decided to settle down, it just so happened that the place they chose was actually inside a naturally born formation. By accident or knowingly, history concealed these facts. As years passed, generations changed, the small settlement developed into a bustling village. The Uzumaki clansmen's already vigorous and vibrant chakra was further nourished and enhanced by the constant exposure to the unique environment inside the formation and with time they developed a connection with the land which led into evolving a natural aptitude to Fuuinjutsu.

So the very first seals weren't created by humans, but formed by nature itself. That was why twisting the natural laws that governed the universe was possible in the first place. Unsurprisingly, destroying those laws was within the bounds of possibility too, but no one wanted that. Not even Rei Uzumaki. He had dealt with enough cataclysmic forces that brought a near end of the world, thank you very much.

Rei tapped his chin with a pencil, eyes fixed on the open journal in his hand. Pages upon pages were filled with notes, calculations, sealing formulas, and fragments of the array system he was currently working on. It seemed that he had hit a dead end on his project for now. No matter how he calculated, the result always ended either with the seal burning a hole in the fabric of reality or not activating at all.

He hummed to himself, frowning at the conundrum lying on the pages in front of him.

"Rei?"

Rei glanced up, blinking in surprise. Jiraiya gazed at him, features set in a very peculiar expression as if he was trying to make sense out of him. Standing next to the Sage, the Sandaime seemed equally weirded out, only a bit less expressive in his confusion. Blue eyes swept the room he was in. The Hokage's office? Wasn't he still at Naruto's apartment? How did he end up here?

"You appeared all of a sudden and just stood there, staring at your notes without saying a word," Jiraiya said, one eyebrow rising in amusement.

Ah. So that was what happened. So used to Hiraishin at this point, that he didn't even notice teleporting the moment it crossed his mind.

Breaking into a sheepish grin, Rei put the pencil inside his journal and snapped it shut. "Sorry about that," he apologized, letting one of the storage seals on his person suck the notes in. "My mind was somewhere else."

The duo observed him. Their initial bemusement soon faded and only fear remained. No, it wasn't quite fear. Something closer to apprehension. Weariness, maybe. Distrust.

Being looked upon with that kind of bias wasn't new for Rei. He grew up surrounded by fear and hate, got several years of reprieve, and went back being feared and distrusted after what befell him at the end of the war. Perhaps, if he was still purely Naruto Uzumaki, he would have been hurt and upset. As it was, it merely made him curious.

Whilst the two men scrutinized him, Rei studied them in return. There was a burning desire to know in their eyes. He could almost see questions lying on the tip of their tongues.

Ah. Right. They knew.

Now it made sense.

Of course they knew. No way would Inoichi keep it to himself. Getting yanked out of his own head and witnessing a being that could shatter his sanity as if it was nothing but glass must have been a traumatizing experience even for a hardened ninja.

Rei did feel guilty about the mishap. While he could have never expected to leave such a security flaw—a serious threat only to a small, specific group of people—it was still a mistake. His mistake. One he intended to not repeat again. He had already implemented a temporary fix and left a shadow clone to figure out a permanent solution. Most likely, he would have to tear off a few layers of the core seals first in order to apply any fortifying measures.

Rei didn't look forward to doing it.

In any case, yesterday's incident was an unfortunate accident, but there wasn't much the Yamanaka could have told them anyway. No one here knew the true story behind the Bijuu either.

Rei Uzumaki was a Jinchuuriki of a terrifying entity. That was it. That was all they knew.

All they needed to know.

And all they were going to get.

"What Inoichi had seen is none of your business," Rei spoke before Hiruzen or Jiraiya could even attempt to ask. It was cold, harsh, and with a tone of finality. Not exactly how he wanted to sound, but his hackles were up and there was no use in trying to smooth them right away. "Something like that won't happen again, so there is no need to be concerned about it." The topic wasn't up for discussion and no one could force him to speak. If they insisted… Well then, he would have to do something drastic none of them would like. "I came here to get rid of Anko's cursed seal, but if I'm not needed, I'll be leaving."

"Don't be so hasty, she'll be here any minute now," Jiraiya placated Rei to mollify his growing ire. "My own skills were pretty useless against that cursed seal. Tell me, how do you plan on doing it? Sensei said you were quite confident in being able to remove it."

"I am confident," Rei stated, noting Jiraiya's sparkling eyes with a fair amount of amusement. Being admired by his former mentor was quite a novelty. "My method, however, might disappoint you. I won't be doing anything fancy."

"Perfection in simplicity. Isn't that what Seal Masters of old used to say?"

"Indeed." The blond smirked. "Though I don't plan to use any seals this time."

There was a knock on the door, but the Sandaime was the only one who reacted to the interruption. He had allowed himself to be ignored on purpose, content with just observing how his student goaded the man into an amicable conversation.

Jiraiya crossed his arms, brow furrowing. "What method do you plan to use then?"

Anko slipped into the room, greeting her Hokage as he opened the door for her. Her good-natured grin fell momentarily as her eyes were drawn immediately to the orange-clad person in the room, but she caught it in time and forced the confident smile back on.

"Seeing as Anko is here now, I'll explain," Rei started. "Orochimaru's cursed seal is not based purely on chakra. Natural energy is its fundamental source of power."

"That's why we had such a hard time with it," Jiraiya admitted. "Not even the Toad Sages could advise us. All we could do was suppress it."

"No surprise. Chakra might be the progeny of natural energy, but they both follow different sets of rules. While natural energy seals are more primitive in their structure, they're also much more volatile and unpredictable. This kind of seal," Rei motioned at Anko, "is uniquely parasitic in its nature. Sure, I can use counterseals to pull it out, it's a valid option. It would hurt a lot, but the host would survive and the damage to the chakra system would heal with time. However," he made a brief pause to accentuate the importance of his next words, "it wouldn't get rid of it."

Anko stiffened. "What do you mean?" she asked and felt a moment of irrational nervousness when the blond's gaze locked on her and sharpened.

"Eventually, it'd regrow to what it was. Like a weed regrows from the piece of its root left in the soil after it had been pulled out. That's the real danger of seals powered by natural energy."

Fury blazed inside Anko's narrowed eyes. Her arms stayed at her side, but she clenched her fists so hard, her knuckles turned white. She denied herself nurturing much hope to begin with, but… "Are you saying it's impossible to remove this thing completely?" she hissed.

"I'm saying that usual methods aren't effective," Rei replied without batting an eyelid at the display of anger directed at him, "but I can purge it with my chakra."

The Hokage pursed his lips. "That would require you to inject your chakra into her directly."

"Yes."

Anko gritted her teeth. Injecting foreign chakra into someone might as well be a death sentence if they didn't possess top-notch chakra control. The slightest mistake or the smallest bit of malicious intent and she would end up dead. Or worse.

Then again, she had searched for this man herself, fully aware of what she wanted to request of him. Or at least ask if it was possible.

He said it was possible.

Backing out now when the solution was within her grasp would be flat-out stupid. What were the chances that she came across another golden opportunity like this? None.

But what if this Rei Uzumaki was like Orochimaru? It was a unique seal—he had said it himself. Maybe he only wanted to get his hands on something new, to experiment with it.

Anko's eyes flicked up and down Rei's form, searching even for the tiniest hint that would betray any hidden motives. Possibly some signs of his eagerness to study the cursed seal and her as its host. To her relief—or maybe dismay—she didn't spot any. He stood there, annoyingly relaxed, waiting, and didn't appear impatient for them to make a decision. In fact, she got a feeling that he wouldn't care if they refused.

As she eyed the guy, making no effort to be anywhere close to subtle about it, Rei's lips tipped up on one side. Anko recognized that particular smirk. It was her favorite, the one she used every time she wanted to be exceptionally grating on someone's nerves. It didn't make her immune to someone else using it. Her jaw tightened.

"Are there any possible side effects?" the Hokage inquired.

Rei took a moment to consider it. "Nothing harmful that I can think of."

"How will this process work?"

"I'll guide my chakra through Anko's chakra system to neutralize any natural energy in it and then it'll be a matter of minutes as I deconstruct and destroy the remains of the seal. Of course, the former will get rid of every bit of natural energy, even the natural residue present in every human, but a few days rest is all that's needed to restore the previous balance." When no one said anything in the next moment, only stared at him with a fair amount of suspicion, he sighed. "Let's just say, I'm exceptionally sensitive to natural energy and my chakra is special."

"Is it because you're an Uzumaki?" Jiraiya asked.

"You could say that."

Anko saw it—the realization that flitted across the Hokage and Jiraiya's faces. They knew something. Something she didn't. Something that stopped them from wanting to object any longer.

She trusted these two. The Hokage was her leader and he wouldn't entrust this stranger to handle this matter if he thought it was unsafe. Jiraiya was the one who found a way to suppress the cursed seal. He was also known as Konoha's best Seal Master, but even she could see the blatant admiration the Sage had for this Uzumaki fellow.

Anko scowled at Rei who met her glower with a cool stare as he continued to wait patiently. "A few days of rest and that's all?" she pressed. "Nothing else?"

"Well, you'll most likely fall asleep during the procedure and wake up a day or two later with a temporary headache and the hunger of a starving beast," Rei answered with absolute seriousness and yet the others could almost taste the cheekiness in his tone.

Anko almost sneered. Fall asleep? Ha! What did he take her for? "Fine," she ground out instead of telling this pretty bastard to go screw himself. She glanced at the Hokage and when he gave her an approving nod, she turned back to the blond. "What do you need me to do?"

Without a word, Rei walked to the corner of the room. There was a couch, a small table, and two chairs. He pulled one out into the middle of the office. "Sit here, please," he said, patting the back of it. "Oh, and take off your coat. I need full access to the seal."

Anko complied without any fuss, throwing her coat on the couch on her way to the chair.

Jiraiya moved off to the side with the Sandaime, both observing with open interest.

Anko sat down, spine ramrod straight. Not only had she turned her back to this unknown, potentially very powerful ninja, but also exposed her neck to him too. It went against every self-preservation instinct that was ingrained into her body and mind throughout all her years as a kunoichi. To make things worse, the guy was also taking his sweet time to start. A jibe was out before she could hold it in, "Did you fall asleep or something?"

"Anko." The Hokage's voice was quiet and even, but no one could mistake a warning for anything else.

Anko bit down on her lip. Taunting a person who agreed to remove that damn thing off of her probably wasn't the smartest idea. She knew all too well that her mouth worked faster than her head when she felt nervous. If she was honest with herself, she was terrified right now. Not that she would admit or show it. Ever.

"My apologies," Rei said and while Anko couldn't see his face, because he was standing directly behind her, she could hear the obvious smile in his voice. "I just realized that this is an incomplete form of the Cursed Seal of Heaven and it reminded me of a stray I urgently need to pick up."

Anko frowned. That made no sense. A poof of chakra smoke on her left startled her, her head whipping in the direction of the perceived threat while her hand simultaneously shot down to grab a kunai. She managed to catch a glimpse of another Rei Uzumaki before the copy vanished. She went rigid when hands landed on her shoulders.

"You're tense and your chakra is churning because you're on such high alert. While it's not necessarily bad, it does make my work harder," Rei spoke softly. "I don't mean any harm, so try to relax."

Anko swallowed another choice word, putting in an effort to do what she was told. Relax. How was she supposed to even attempt that? Fall asleep, her ass. She might be able to force herself to relax to some degree, but there was no way she would be letting her guard down completely in front of a stranger.

Rei's fingers on her right shoulder started moving, kneading her muscles. It was so distracting, Anko instinctively focused on it. From the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of golden-colored chakra enveloping those fingers. Every time they pressed into the meat of her shoulder, soothing warmth spread from that spot, poured throughout her entire body and into her limbs, filling every single crevice and fold and space inside her.

Anko didn't even notice how her guard dropped lower and lower until she was left vulnerable and exposed.

Nor did she realize her mind becoming drowsier and her body feeling heavier before she slipped into a blissful sleep.


Rei lifted his left hand away from where it rested over the cursed seal, balling it into a tight fist in the process. A moment later, wisps of black smoke escaped through the small gaps. He unclenched his hand and shook it a couple of times - as if trying to shake off some non-existent filth.

A thought that Orochimaru definitely should have felt his soul fragment being destroyed brought Rei the feeling of delighted satisfaction. It also should have hurt, though more the snake's ego than his body. Orochimaru always had so much pride in his cursed seals, he would probably go mad in not knowing what happened and who could have done this.

It also meant that he would investigate. Rei had to keep an eye on Anko until Orochimaru was dealt with.

He focused on his task again, making sure that no remains of the corrupted natural energy were left in the kunoichi's body before slowly retrieving his chakra from her system. The moment he was done, Anko slumped sideways and would have fallen off the chair if not for Rei's hand supporting her weight. He shuffled around the chair, careful not to let her fall, and picked her up.

Rei felt gazes of the room's other two occupants boring into the back of his skull as he moved the sleeping kunoichi onto the couch. He put a palm on her forehead for the last check-up. Everything seemed in order. He pulled back, but not before a subtle press of his finger behind her ear to leave a miniature version of his Hiraishin marker.

Rei stood up. Grabbing Anko's abandoned coat, he used it as a makeshift blanket to cover her. Only then he finally turned back to Hiruzen and Jiraiya. "The cursed seal is fully lifted now," he told them. "As I said earlier, she'll be fine after sleeping it off and eating a good meal once she wakes up."

The Sandaime dipped his head in a grateful nod. "Thank you for your assistance."

Rei grinned. "Anytime, Old Man." He blinked, eyes flicking over to the window to look at something in the village. "Ah, I need to go. I promised the boys to bring them for the last walk around Konoha today." A quick wave served as his goodbye as he vanished.

Jiraiya walked across the room and crouched next to the couch to check on Anko. He gently tilted her head to look at the spot on her neck where the cursed seal had been ingrained previously. Nothing was there anymore, only a circle of slightly red, irritated skin.

"Yep. It's gone," Jiraiya stated. "And she's perfectly fine." His words were met with no comments, so he continued to stare at that spot on the kunoichi's neck, his mind a mess. He had never seen such a method of seal removal. Fascinating.

"What do you think of this, Jiraiya?"

A snort at that question came out almost like an accident, because the next moment Jiraiya heaved a heavy sight as he straightened up. "What do I think of this?" he asked in return, turning to face his sensei. "I think we should be damn grateful that Rei Uzumaki doesn't want to be our enemy."

With more and more information piling up about the elusive blond Uzumaki, Hiruzen silently agreed.

"Rei'd need to only flash to the center of Konoha, use that sealing system from Kusa, and the war would practically be won by him in a few minutes. You can't fight what you can't even touch." Jiraiya shrugged. "And I don't know who, if anyone at all, would be able to touch him at this point."

"That reminds me," the Sandaime went around his table and pulled a small scroll from its drawers. "We got a message this morning from our spies in Suna," he said, giving the scroll to his student who came closer to take it. "Rei took off with the Ichibi Jinchuuriki, leaving the Shadow Clone behind that effortlessly decimated Suna's forces, including the Kazekage."

Jiraiya's eyebrows shot up into his hairline at the news. He instantly rolled the scroll out to read the message himself. "Knowing how Suna treats their Jinchuuriki…" he mumbled before looking back up with a worried scowl. "You think it'll spark a war?"

"I'm not so sure," Hiruzen answered, fishing out his pipe out of another drawer. He continued speaking as he ignited it up and took a few puffs to keep it lit. "Rei Uzumaki is a new player on board. After these two major incidents, every village will take notice of his existence." He paused, blowing a cloud of smoke. "Considering the level of power and skill he displayed, it's very likely that the other nations will wait and observe for now."

"Does that mean the Ichibi Jinchuuriki is currently in Konoha?"

Hiruzen grimaced. "Yes, he is. It seems that Naruto and that boy are fast friends. I dispatched ANBU to keep potential spies from approaching, but Rei sent them back, saying that he'll keep them safe himself."

"Hmm…" Jiraiya trailed off thoughtfully, eyes still on the message from Suna. "You know, I'm really starting to believe that all Rei wants is family. He might be unpredictable, but as long as the people he's decided to protect are not threatened, he's not really a threat himself."

'It's not what he said—the fact that Uzushio will always be a home for the unwanted and abused, but how he said it. I believe him,' the Hokage recalled Shikaku Nara's words and sighed. "I still worry about that creature sealed inside him," he shared.

"The world is vast. With what you told me, we're lucky it's kept under lock."

Hiruzen reclined into his chair and closed his eyes for a brief moment, recalling the sight of Inoichi from yesterday. The man's trembling hands and panicked eyes. He had never imagined witnessing the Head of the Yamanaka being so alarmed and agitated. Just seeing this veteran ninja so spooked was unsettling.

The world was vast, it was true. No one knew what dangers lurked over the horizon or in the depths of the ocean. A thought that entities larger, more powerful, and immeasurably more dangerous than the Bijuu were might be somewhere out there was frightening.

Hiruzen rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache creeping in. He was too old for this. He should just find a replacement and retire already. Maybe visit Uzushio. He had been in that village many, many years ago, but he could still remember the sunny blue sky, waves washing sandy beaches, beautiful woman in—

He coughed. If only he could find someone to take over the hat. "Hey, Jiraiya?"

His office was empty, except for sleeping Anko on the couch.

Hiruzen bit down on his pipe with more force than necessary. "Damn brat…"


Rei was at an impasse.

He hadn't realized the scope of how hard his own existence pushed against the limits of the natural laws until he tried approaching his current project the same way he had approached time travel. Unique circumstances behind his persona were exactly why he could slip through the cracks in between two different time streams without creating a paradox. Abnormal enough to force the universe into adding his existence into the equation and shifting according to this new variable, but not defying its rules to the point where he would cause its collapse.

Creating a safe haven, untouchable and unbreakable no matter what, not by humans and not by the tides of time, certainly ended up being more complex than the time travel issue. Trickier. He didn't have the freedom to just wave off the dangers. He could survive anything—probably—but normal beings couldn't.

Even if they were the Bijuu.

Rei wasn't about to risk their lives like this. They might not be the ones he knew, not the ones he befriended back in his time, but he owed his friends at least this much for failing to save them in the end. For allowing a madman to kill almost all of them for the resurrection of the Juubi. For not being strong enough to keep the latter sealed. If he had been, Kurama wouldn't have sacrificed himself…

Rei clicked his tongue. He was getting off-track. Let his mind wander into places he had no desire to dwell in. He reclined on the bench he was sitting on and rubbed his eyes.

The sun dipped lower between the trees, bathing the surroundings in a glow of red and gold. It was a secluded area on the edges of the cultivated forest with an old, cobbled path leading into it and maintained enough to not be called abandoned, but people rarely visited it.

A perfect spot for two young Jinchuuriki to play.

Rei brushed his hand across his eyes for the last time and then raked fingers through his hair. Resting his elbow on the armrest, he leaned his head on his palm and proceeded to stare at the open journal.

"You know, Minato used to do that—glaring at his seal notes when he was stuck."

A voice reached Rei's ears, but he didn't spare the speaker even a single glimpse. He had sensed him approaching from miles away.

A moment later, Jiraiya plopped down on the bench, throwing both his arms on top of the backrest with a sigh. "He could spend hours just staring at it. Always threw a tantrum when someone wanted to drag him away from it."

"Really?" he asked as the image of his father flashed across his mind. Those few weeks they spent fighting side by side and a few precious moments of respite in between battles. Minato never talked much about himself, always ending up either gushing about Kushina or asking his son to tell him more about himself. At this point, Rei knew more about his mother than his father. His mouth twitched into a wistful curve, followed by a soft, "I didn't know that."

"That kid was no fun at all," Jiraiya complained with a dismissing wave of his hand and an obvious fake pout. "Kushina, on the other hand, would rather jump straight into experimenting than wait until she figured the smallest details out." His burst of laughter was short-lived, fading away into a rueful grin. "I bet Naruto will grow up being just like his mother in this regard."

Rei's snort turned into a fit of chuckles. Even after he got it under control, he couldn't wipe the smile off his face. "You never know," he said, blue eyes shining with mirth. "Naruto might surprise you."

"Either way," Jiraiya didn't sound convinced. "Taking his eyes off it and doing something else for inspiration was usually what helped Minato to break through whatever difficulty he had."

"Inspiration, huh. Yeah, I could use some as well." Despite agreeing, Rei's eyes were still glued to his journal. He had to squint now as it was hard to see the text in the dwindling light.

Jiraiya gave up, recognizing the lost cause for what it was.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence.

"I visited Kusagakure recently."

Rei hummed under his breath to acknowledge that he was listening, but deemed not important enough to comment on it.

"That's some fine artwork you left behind."

Another 'mm' and nothing else.

"How're those two Uzumaki doing?"

Rei heaved a sigh and closed his journal. He knew Jiraiya. His old sensei wouldn't leave him alone if he didn't explain. "They're recuperating. I plan to meet up with them after my trip with the boys and move them all to Uzushio at the same time," he replied, finally giving his undivided attention to the man. "Have you ever heard of the Meimyaku* of the Uzumaki clan?"

Jiraiya scratched his chin. "I think I have. A very long time ago." He paused, pondering. "Not sure if I remember who they are."

"Their existence was never really a secret, but not something the clan flaunted either. Meimyaku were admired, respected, and considered one of the clan's greatest treasures. They had an extremely strong and potent chakra and could share it with others to heal their wounds and sometimes even illnesses. I read old records of incidents where Meimyaku managed to revive a recently deceased person."

"Threads of life*," Jiraiya murmured. "Fitting name."

"Only a handful of them were mentioned in the records from when Uzushiogakure was thriving, so I never thought any of them survived." Rei's gaze hardened, two chips of ice that chilled Jiraiya to his core. "Imagine my surprise when I found a couple of Meimyaku in Kusa with the mother on the brink of dying after being forced to overuse her healing abilities to keep her seven-year-old daughter safe."

He couldn't stop the sneer from twisting his features. Just thinking about it made his blood boil.

"There are three reasons for my actions in Kusa," Rei continued, keeping his fury firmly leashed. "First, a punishment for those who used and abused people of my clan. Second, a warning to everyone else that it won't be tolerated any longer. And third, a message to all Uzumaki survivors and their descendants."

Jiraiya held Rei's icy gaze. It seemed like a lifetime passed when the streetlamp next to the bench buzzed and flickered to life. Jiraiya's shoulders relaxed as he slumped in his seat. "You're one crazy guy, you know that?" he muttered. "At this point, you'll get a flee-on-sight order in all Bingo books."

"That'd be fun," Rei commented with a wicked smirk. "Ah, that reminds me. I have to pay Oonoki a visit."

"You're not afraid that the hidden villagers will band together and come to destroy Uzushio?"

"No." He really wasn't. Fear wasn't something Rei felt all that often anymore and certainly not for situations like this. "If they want to try—" Unbeknownst to him, his lips were drawn back into a feral grin at the prospect, reminiscent of a predatory beast waiting for the tasty prey to do something that would keep it remotely entertained. "—I'll make sure to pay them in kind."

Jiraiya shook his head with a sigh. He was about to say something, but startled when a shining golden creature whizzed out from the forest.

It was a four-legged horse-like creature about the size of a small dog with a weirdly shaped horned head and five long tails. It glowed in the darkness, golden streams of light wreathing around the creature's body… No, it was made out of that light. Out of pure golden chakra.

Jiraiya's eyes widened. He had never seen it, of course, but he knew how it was supposed to look from the records the Shodai and the Nidaime left behind: this was definitely a miniature version of the Gobi, he was sure of that. Some sort of chakra construct that was shaped exactly like the Gobi.

A few seconds later, a dozen of Narutos spilled out of the forest chasing after the chakra creature. Waves of sand accompanied them with Gaara following after on top of a small floating cloud. Yelling valiant cries of war, all Narutos leaped on the Gobi and piled up on top of it…

…or thought that they piled up on top of it. The chakra construct was standing to the side, safe and sound. It even stuck its tongue at the boys before it had to dart out of the torrent of sand that slammed into the ground, wanting to crush it.

Jiraiya stared at the scene, absolutely gobsmacked. "I can't believe you taught Naruto the Shadow Clone jutsu," he finally stammered out.

Rei groaned as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Me neither," he grumbled.

Even if it was done by his own Shadow Clone which returned all the memories to him, Rei couldn't figure out what possessed him at that time. All he remembered was a whiny begging voice and a pair of sparkling blue eyes and then suddenly he decided to teach the kid. It was ridiculous how absurdly fast Naruto learned the jutsu too.

"Naruto."

The little blond—all of them—froze mid-move at the tone his name had been called. Their heads snapped in the direction of his uncle, and they all winced because Rei didn't look amused.

The chakra construct used the sudden lull in the chase to sprint away from the kids, rushing towards Rei and then jumping on his shoulders. Jiraiya watched it with curious eyes as it settled down and started to unravel, chakra sinking and merging with Rei's body.

Not paying attention to what his chakra was doing, Rei sternly inquired, "What did I tell you about the Shadow Clones?"

Naruto blinked. "Uhhh…" he trailed off, eyes shifting to the side. "Not more than ten at the time?"

"Right," Rei agreed. "And how many clones did you make here?"

Behind the original, Naruto's clones eyed each other. As Naruto turned to count, a big number of them dispelled themselves. "Ten!" the boy announced happily.

Jiraiya bellowed with laughter, but Rei wanted to facepalm. What a smart little shit.

"And Gaara." The little redhead stared at him with such a deer in the light expression that Rei almost let him off the hook. "What did I tell you about controlling the sand while we're in Konoha?"

More than half of the sand that was still hovering in the air whooshed down like a waterfall and spread across the ground. "Only control a certain amount of it?" Gaara mumbled hopefully.

Rei stared. Should he be amazed or horrified by how much Naruto influenced Gaara in such a short period of time? "As long as you two know," he said finally and watched how both their tiny faces lit up. "Now, come here," he motioned them to approach, "I want to introduce someone to you."

Naruto's clones disappeared in a poof of smoke and Gaara hopped off his cloud of sand, letting the remainder fall and scatter on the ground as well, and they shuffled to Rei together. Naruto practically hid behind the side of the bench, clutching at its armrest while peeking over it at the unfamiliar white-haired man. Gaara frowned at his friend's timid behavior and moved to stand at his side in a posture that just screamed of protectiveness.

Rei put a hand on top of Naruto's head and gently ruffled his hair, smiling as the kid's eyes darted to his face. "This is Jiraiya," he said, motioning to the other man with his head. "One of the Sannin."

Naruto's head shot up, eyes wide and features awash with surprise. "Whoa! Really?!"

Jiraiya made a face. "What's up with this bland introduction?" He jumped to his feet and dramatically spun around on his wooden sandal to face his audience of three. "Listen all! And listen well!" he yelled, striking his usual pose. "I am the Great Toad Sage of Mount Myoboku! People call me Jiraiya the Gallant!"

Naruto was all but sparkling now. Gaara didn't look that impressed, maybe slightly interested. It was a complicated arrangement of his facial features.

Rei rolled his eyes. "Are you sure they don't call you Ero-sennin?"

Jiraiya spluttered, "Hey!" at the comment with a sort of indignant anger, but then his expression fell into a petulant pout. "You're no fun after all…" He proceeded to ignore the deadpan stare and crouched down instead, flashing a grin at the kids. "Anyway, I have a little gift for you." After rummaging around his pockets for a few moments, he pulled out two things. "This is for you, Naruto," he said, extending his hand with a green, frog-shaped wallet towards the young blond. With his other hand, he outstretched a keychain with a plush panda to Gaara. "And this one's for you. I didn't have much time to choose, so I hope you like it."

Boys gawked at the gifts like they couldn't believe what they were seeing.

Rei stared at one of the gifts with an odd expression. Gama-chan. That was his Gama-chan, he would recognize it anywhere, anytime. A wallet that he had found on his windowsill one day with no signs or notices about who might have left it there.

So it was Jiraiya's gift all along. Rei hadn't known that. He had just figured out a several decades long mystery.

Pushing his own sentiments aside, the man nudged Naruto to encourage him to accept the gift, knowing that Gaara would most likely follow his friend's lead.

It was all Naruto needed to reach and grab the frog wallet. He looked at it from above, from the left, from the right, and even from below. Beaming at Jiraiya, he exclaimed, "Thanks, Old Man!"

Gaara took his gift with careful hands as if it was made out of fragile glass and the slightest mishandling would damage it. "Thank you," he uttered under his breath. He stared at the panda keychain, full of something akin to shock. Slowly, gradually, a small smile curled on his lips.

After watching Naruto running around laughing and occasionally hugging his wallet, Rei's eyes suddenly widened. "I've got it." He straightened up, full of excited vigor. "The chance at inspiration for my project."

Jiraiya raised his eyebrow at him.

"I need a favor," the blond told him. "Can you ask the toad summons if I could visit Mount Myoboku?" He whipped out a Hiraishin kunai and offered it to his old sensei. "Give them this to call me if they agree."

"Alright." With little hesitation, Jiraiya accepted the kunai. "I'm pretty sure the toads would like to meet you as well."


*- Meimyaku (命脈) meaning "life" or "thread of life"


A/N

It came to my attention that FFN app gives false notifications about updates every time I tinker with the existing chapters. I'm sorry about that, guys. I can't do anything about it and I can't promise that there won't be any from me in the future.

I also wanted to apologize for neglecting replying to the comments. I still won't be replying to all of them, but I'll try to do better from now on. Just know that I definitely read them all, multiple times, especially when I'm writing a chapter and hit a wall and I need a little pick-me-up to not just flip my table and be done with it.

So, thank you all for reading and especially those who comment! You're what makes me push myself to give my possible best. Tell me what you liked the most in this chapter!

I have a discord channel now: discord. gg/a7tQPPa