Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Naruto.


Summary: The first time Naruto becomes aware of his mysterious guardian, he is twelve and has absolutely no idea just how big an impact their meeting will have on himself and the rest of the world. Time/Dimension Travel, AU.


Ghost


I.

The first time Naruto encounters his self-appointed protector is the very same day Team Seven clashes with Zabuza and Haku at the bridge, but really, at that time, it's more 'guarding what Naruto wants' than actually 'guarding Naruto'.

Sasuke, who's a teme on a good day but is also his teammate and sort-of friend, is deaddeaddead and Naruto can feel himself slipping into a mind-consuming rage at the very thought. What feels like only a few seconds later, that same anger and that odd red chakra that must belong to the damn fox retreats and Naruto is suddenly face-to-face with Haku, whom he honestly wanted as a friend after talking with the other boy in the forest last night.

Haku asks Naruto to kill him, and while a part of Naruto wants to do just that – because he killed Sasuke – another part feels sympathetic when he listens to the other boy's reason. But he tries to follow through anyway and is stopped instead, only to watch in horror as Haku throws himself in between Kakashi and Zabuza.

Naruto feels it then – a push from behind by what feels like a gust of wind. He somehow feels like someone has sped him up, as if a jutsu is making him faster, and he doesn't stop to question it. Instead, he throws himself forward and tackles Haku to the ground, and he almost blacks out with relief when Kakashi sees him in time and redirects his Raikiri, scoring a deep gouge in Zabuza's shoulder that misses anything vitally important instead.

It was hours later – after Naruto tears Zabuza a new one for considering Haku as nothing but a weapon, after Zabuza and Haku reach an understanding, after Sasuke turns out to be not-dead after all, after Kakashi finishes scolding him for being so reckless, after Naruto forces everyone to stop trying to kill each other because there really was no point, after Gatou appears with his men, and after Team Seven and the two mercenaries kick their asses – before Naruto could take the time to think back to that moment when something had helped him save Haku.

Of course, maybe whatever it had been, whoever had caused it, had wanted him dead by Kakashi's hand, but at the same time, maybe they had known that his sensei would be able to react in time.

He mentions it to Kakashi, the extra speed his body had suddenly gained at the time, but his sensei assured him that it was simply adrenaline.

Naruto is still doubtful after that so he wanders back outside to the exact place he had been standing in when that odd wind had wrapped around him.

He doesn't see anything though, and soon enough, morning arrives.

(Somewhere in between, he also gets a bridge named after him – and how cool is that? – and Naruto decides that the bridge builder isn't so bad after all.)

After a round of goodbyes, they begin making their way back to Konoha with two mercenaries in tow. Kakashi assures them all that the Sandaime would be willing to give them a home in Konoha if they were willing to live under a few restrictions.

Sasuke and Sakura still look somewhat wary and Zabuza grumbles a bit after hearing this, but Haku stops looking so nervous after Naruto promises to wear the old man down no matter how long it takes.

He soon dismisses that gust of wind and his resulting burst of speed. After all, it could very well have been just adrenaline.

II.

The second time something weird happens, a few months after the bridge mission, Naruto knows it isn't adrenaline, if only because adrenaline doesn't take the form of a shinobi with blond hair and blue eyes just like his.

They're in the middle of the Chuunin Exam, in the Forest of Death and facing off against a creepy Grass ninja when said nin tries to put a seal on Naruto. Again, that wind comes, and Naruto recognizes it in a heartbeat as it sweeps past him and snaps the branch he is perched on, making him fall and crash to the ground just as the Grass-nin reaches him.

Naruto is pretty sure no one else felt what he felt because even the enemy only sneers at his apparent good luck and goes for Sakura instead. Luckily, Sakura only gets knocked out because Naruto scrambles to his feet again and releases a barrage of kunai in the Grass-nin's direction.

And then Sasuke melts off half the shinobi's face, only to reveal the creepy snake bastard underneath who calls himself Orochimaru.

It is then that Naruto catches a glimpse of a blur, racing over his head amongst the tree branches, but all Naruto could see – and feel – at that moment was the whirling ball of chakra that sang with power as it plowed straight into an unsuspecting Orochimaru.

A second too late though and Naruto could only watch in helpless disgust as the snake bastard sinks his fangs into Sasuke's neck. His teammate cries out and falls unconscious soon after but Orochimaru is also injured and retreats in a hurry, hissing with pain even as he searches in vain for his attacker who has already disappeared.

But not for long. As soon as Orochimaru has disappeared and Naruto is desperately trying to rouse his teammates, someone lands a few feet away from them, silent as the grave.

For a second, Naruto is sure that this man is here to kill them too because the expression twisting the stranger's foreign-familiar features is frustrated – no, not frustrated, downright pissed, but also somewhat satisfied as the shinobi eyes the direction that Orochimaru withdrew in.

Naruto whips out a kunai even though he is fairly certain he has a better chance of waking Sasuke up than landing a single cut on the shinobi, but the man ignores his weapon as he approaches, the displeasure evaporating from his face as his attention focused on Sasuke instead, or, more specifically, on that funny-looking seal Orochimaru has left behind.

"You need to find a place to hide," The man speaks in a low even tenor, and eyes as blue as Naruto's own meets his. "I'll give you a hand."

Naruto doesn't really want this complete stranger – and yet, somehow, the stranger doesn't feel like a stranger – anywhere near his teammates but he needs help and this is most likely the third time that this man has helped him, so he nods hesitantly and threatens to hurt the stranger if he hurts Sasuke or Sakura before he lets the man pick up Sasuke while he handles Sakura.

Fifteen minutes later, they're tucked away in the hollow of a tree and a fire is crackling in front of them as Naruto silently watches the stranger rig traps around the makeshift camp.

The shinobi has bright yellow hair like his, except it was a bit longer and not quite as spiky, though it wasn't exactly tame either. The man has the same blue eyes as well, except they were darker, more guarded and tired. Older. Naruto is sure he's seen it before in the Sandaime's eyes as well. There is no headband anywhere in sight even though the shinobi is decked out in ninja wear, flak jacket and all.

"Who are you? Naruto demands as soon as the man returns to the fire. "Why are you helping us?"

The stranger shrugs as he tosses a pack of rations to Naruto before performing a few hand seals and producing a jet of water from his hands (Naruto kinda wants to learn how to do that but he figures he could always just nag Zabuza until the Mist-nin-turned-mercenary-turned-probationary-Konoha-nin gives in and shows him a water jutsu), dumping the liquid into a bowl. A wet cloth is soon placed on a feverish-looking Sasuke's forehead, and Naruto berates himself for not thinking of that sooner.

"I want to," The man says, ignoring the first question.

"Why?" Naruto persists. "You helped me save Haku a few months back as well, right? And then you saved me today and you tried to save Sasuke."

The stranger looks irritated again, but Naruto is reasonably sure that it isn't because of him.

"Orochimaru is dangerous," The man says instead, evading Naruto's question once more. "He wants Sasuke."

Naruto stiffened, a rush of protective anger filling his chest. "Why?"

"A vessel," The stranger explains, and Naruto is beginning to realize exactly what 'a man of few words' is like. "Sasuke has the Sharingan. Orochimaru wants someone to possess to gain immortality."

Naruto blanches before eyeing the man suspiciously. "How do you know that?"

The man shrugs again. "I just do."

Naruto huffs and crosses his arms. "How do I know you're not working with Orochimaru or something?"

The man just looks at him, one eyebrow raised, and Naruto flushes and feels kinda stupid. Whoever he is, this shinobi has injured Orochimaru quite badly (nobody could fake something like that – the snake bastard was seriously in pain), and he's been helping Naruto since the mission in Wave Country.

"So what do I do about it?" Naruto asks instead, hating how useless he feels. "I mean Sasuke's been- been bitten-"

"The Cursed Seal of Heaven," The man only says. "Your sensei will handle it."

Naruto scowls petulantly at this lack of information but presses on after a moment. "Should- Should I tell Kakashi-sensei about you?"

The man lifts an eyebrow again as if to say, 'You're asking me?'

Naruto makes a face at him. "Well, I don't know! I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to have help during the exams and you could get in trouble for it. I mean, are you even a Konoha-nin?"

The man tilts his head in a thoughtful manner before shaking it. "No, not anymore."

"Then you're a missing-nin!" Naruto accuses.

The man considers this too. "No, not quite that either."

Naruto scratches his head in complete confusion but lets it go because listening to the man's cryptic answers is giving him a headache.

Sakura takes this moment to groan, stirring from her slumber, and the stranger gracefully rises to his feet.

"You're leaving already?" Naruto can't help feeling disappointed. "If you don't want anyone finding out about you, I'm sure I can make sure Sakura-chan and even Sasuke-teme don't tell anyone."

But the man shakes his head again. "Tell them, don't tell them – I don't care. No one will be able to find me anyway."

"Wait!" Naruto leapt to his feet as well, feeling strangely anxious. "Will I see you again?"

The man smiles at this – the first smile Naruto had seen – and while it's small and almost unnoticeable, it is also familiar in a way Naruto couldn't understand.

Sakura shifts, and Naruto glances at her over his shoulder for a second. When he turns back, the stranger is gone.

The rest of the second test passes without too much trouble. There are a few minutes during their fight against an enemy team from Sound that worries Naruto because he is occupied with two of the enemy-nins while Sakura is struggling with the third and he can't go save her. He is damn impressed though when his teammate cuts off her hair and manages to get one up on the bitch, but then Fuzzy-Brows rushes in, as well as Shikamaru's team, and somehow or other, Sasuke is suddenly on his feet and half-mental with the Cursed Seal spreading over his skin.

Naruto can admit, at least in the privacy of his own mind, that the cold, merciless look in Sasuke's eyes sort of scares the shit out of him, but Sakura somehow manages to calm him down and the Sound Genin limp off, defeated, leaving Naruto's team with their first scroll.

The second scroll comes by easily enough and Naruto thinks he catches another fleeting look of the blond shinobi when Kabuto comes to help them, but the man doesn't come out and Naruto is too elated with Team Seven's success to think much of it.

However, in the end, he doesn't say anything to Kakashi or his teammates about the stranger. He drops a word to Kakashi about the Cursed Seal of Heaven and how Orochimaru wants to possess Sasuke for immortality, vaguely implying that the snake bastard had been the one boasting about it, but doesn't say more than that.

Kakashi looks almost shocked but only nods grimly and tells them that they did a good job before escorting Sasuke away. For once, Naruto doesn't really mind that their sensei always seems to pay more attention to Sasuke – especially since this time, he has good reason to – and he ignores the way Sakura frets loudly about the Uchiha.

Instead, Naruto thinks of the blond-haired, blue-eyed man – he looks to be in his mid- to late- twenties, maybe early thirties at the most – who, if Naruto is honest (and he's staring at his own face in a bathroom mirror right now), could probably pass as his-

He doesn't allow himself to continue that thought. He's used to having no family and depending on himself. For all that he cares about Team Seven, they're not family, not yet (maybe one day), and it's better – safer – not to think about things like that, especially when he doesn't even know the man's name.

So Naruto returns to where the other Genin are and cheers both Sasuke and Sakura on as they fight. He's a bit disappointed when he doesn't get any cheers of his own but his teammates aren't ones to do that sort of thing anyway – he's the passionate one – so he contents himself with kicking Kiba's ass.

He's more than a little heated when Neji almost kills Hinata and he really wants to beat Gaara up for injuring Lee so badly, but Kakashi holds him back and he can only fume as the second stage of the Chuunin Exam comes to a close.

III.

The third time Naruto meets the mysterious shinobi who isn't a Konoha-nin but could seemingly come and go from the village as he pleases – a part of him said he should probably report this but Naruto's never been a snitch and the man hasn't done anything but help yet – is right after Kakashi foists him off on Ebisu.

Naruto is pissed off and hurt but agrees anyway because he doesn't want someone who obviously doesn't think he's worth the effort to train him. Ebisu challenges him to run away and promises his resignation as Naruto's tutor if he escapes.

Naruto almost snorts at this. He has been leaving ANBU in his dust since he was eight years old – this guy doesn't stand a chance.

Dutifully, he flicks out dozens of Kage Bunshin before scampering off himself. Ebisu dispatches the clones easily enough but Naruto knows Konoha better than the back of his own hand, and by weaving through back alleys and underground in the sewers and circling into the Red-Light District before doubling back and coming out near his run-down apartment. He also carefully conceals his chakra to the best of his ability – Kakashi was good for something after all.

He waits for a few minutes, just in case Ebisu is more competent than Naruto gives him credit for when it comes to tracking people, but – surprise, surprise – the man doesn't appear.

He really does snort derisively this time and would've stormed off back to where Kakashi had last been and try to hunt him down to demand a better teacher if he hadn't caught sight of a familiar blond leaning against his apartment door.

Naruto grins and brightens before he realizes it and bounds up the steps to meet the not-stranger.

"Hi!" He greets enthusiastically because here is someone who doesn't let anyone besides Naruto see him, so he's Naruto's secret.

The man looks faintly amused and nods back in reply. "Back early?"

Naruto grimaces and hops up onto the banister of the balcony. He mostly forgets that this man had punched a hole in Orochimaru's side without breaking a sweat and could still be an enemy. The man just doesn't feel like an enemy, not to Naruto. "Kakashi-sensei is an ass and handed me over to some idiot for training."

The man frowns and looks a bit puzzled so Naruto clarifies, "The idiot Kakashi-sensei stuck me with told me to run away and that he'd resign as my sensei if I could get away from him. I did, so I guess he's not my sensei anymore, which, come to think of it, actually leaves me with no sensei."

He scowls moodily at his door. Now what was he gonna do?

"How?" The man asks, and when Naruto just blinks at him, he expands, "How did you escape?"

Naruto puffs up proudly. "I sent some clones out as a distraction before taking the back alleys and sewers to get away."

The man blinks and then mutters something that sounds like "why didn't I think of that" under his breath but Naruto doesn't have time to question it before the blond sniffs and says almost teasingly, "Is that why you stink?"

Naruto turns red and protests loudly but the man just chuckles and suggests he take a bath first. Naruto huffs but does as he is told, secretly enjoying the easy banter between them. He lets the man into his apartment without too much dithering – if the shinobi wants to hurt him, he would've done it in the Forest of Death where no one would be any the wiser.

By the time he finishes his shower, Naruto's nose picks up the smell of ramen and he ducks into his tiny kitchen to find five cups of ramen on the counter. The man is already digging into one while the other four are clearly placed in front of Naruto's seat, and there are coins on the table, enough to cover all five cups.

"You can have it for free," Naruto tells him as he eagerly digs into his own cup. "And you can have more than one."

The man just shakes his head and doesn't make any move to retrieve the money. When Naruto stubbornly pushes the money back, the shinobi arches an eyebrow before compromising by taking back half of the money. The steely glint in his eyes told Naruto that that would be the only leeway he would give.

Naruto pouts but concedes and they finish the meal in record time.

"Are you leaving again?" Naruto asks, disappointed once more when the man heads for the door.

The shinobi inclines his head but tells him, "Go to the Hot Spring Town. You'll find a man with white hair sitting on a giant toad there, most likely peeking at the ladies. Impress him – he'll make you strong."

Naruto's jaw hangs open for a moment at this unexpected piece of advice before he dashes after the blond. "Wait! Wait! Can I at least know who you are?"

The man pauses on the balcony and glances back at him. A wry smile tilts his lips.

"You can call me Yuurei."

Naruto blinks once and the man is gone.

Yuurei. Ghost.

Well, with the way the man comes and goes without a sound, Naruto thinks the name suits him, even if it is a bit on the eerie side.

IV.

Naruto doesn't tell the white-haired shinobi that someone had told him to find the man, though to be fair, the white-haired man doesn't ask since Naruto is careful to make no mention of Yuurei. The pervert, true to Yuurei's words, is too enthralled with peeking into the women's hot springs to really question Naruto anyway.

Ebisu makes an appearance just as Naruto evilly hollers for the world to hear that there is a pervert spying on the ladies, and he enjoys the beating that the white-haired man gets. Serves the bastard right for ignoring Naruto.

Ebisu looks torn between impressed and embarrassed when he hurries up but his soon-to-be sensei – Jiraiya, the Toad Sage, apparently – knocks Ebisu flat on his back, and before Naruto knows it, Jiraiya has whisked him off for training once Naruto shows the pervert his Harem no Jutsu.

And throughout the month, Naruto sees Yuurei several more times. The man only appears when Naruto is at home and he never stays for long, though Naruto has managed to wheedle the shinobi into sticking around for a few hours.

Naturally, Naruto is delighted when Yuurei agrees to help him with his training as well. Yuurei polishes up his aim until Naruto can hit a moving target without pause. He teaches Naruto how to break low- to medium-levelled genjutsus, and, best of all, he shows Naruto two different ninjutsus.

The first is a wind type: Fuuton: Kamikaze, and, after seeing the awesome damage that Yuurei manages to wreak in the forest clearing that they practice in, Naruto wastes no time throwing every spare minute he has into perfecting the jutsu.

The second is an earth type: Doton: Moguragakure no Jutsu. This too, Naruto works at with a determined fervour. Being able to hide in the ground sounds like a great tactic when dodging enemies, and it comes easily enough to him since it's only a C-rank jutsu.

Yuurei also tells him, quite helpfully, that his shadow clones can relate all their experiences back to Naruto, which frankly saves him a lot of time. He doesn't know why Kakashi never mentioned this before.

But what Naruto likes the most is the fact that Yuurei is his. His secret, his guard, his teacher, and no one else's.

Ero-sennin is an alright sensei – he teaches Naruto how to walk on water and channel the demon fox's energy and use the Summoning Jutsu – but the man is infuriating on the best of days, and every single training session is preceded by at least an hour of pestering and pleading on Naruto's part for Jiraiya to stop his damn 'research' and get with the program.

On the other hand, Yuurei never wastes a second when he comes to call, quietly efficient as he spars with Naruto and makes him stronger. Some days, Naruto wishes he could just ask Yuurei to become his full-time sensei but he's never seen the man out and about the village, and while Yuurei has never said it and even claims he doesn't mind, Naruto suspects that he might cause problems for the older blond if he starts blabbing about Yuurei's presence to other people.

And while he knows next to nothing about the man (Yuurei probably isn't even his real name),

Naruto, for some unknown reason (besides the fact that Yuurei is training him; Naruto isn't stupid enough to get bribed into a false sense of safety), trusts him.

It's a strange feeling. Sometimes, when Naruto considers it right before he falls asleep, his chest warms at the very thought of his new mentor and almost-friend.

V.

The finals come all too soon, and while Naruto has mastered everything Ero-sennin has taught him and he's gotten the Earth Jutsu Yuurei showed him down to an art, the Wind Jutsu is still giving him trouble. The strength behind the technique is barely a third of what Yuurei can manage but the man assures him that, for a month of practice, Naruto is doing very well.

Jiraiya is nowhere in sight the day the third stage of the Chuunin Exam starts but Naruto is okay with that because Yuurei is there to see him off with a rare smile and a "good luck, I'll be watching".

Naruto grins and waves before heading for the stadium with a bounce in his step. He doesn't know how Yuurei is going to watch his match with all the other spectators in broad daylight but his mentor isn't one to say things he doesn't mean.

As he makes his way over to the other Konoha Genin, Naruto notices the tension in some of the Jounin's faces. He would've missed it if Yuurei hadn't been honing his observation skills as well. As it is, he can tell that the older Konoha-nins are all uneasy, but uneasy about what, Naruto doesn't know.

He also finds a new proctor – Shiranui Genma – in the stadium because, apparently, the one before – Gekkou Hayate – had been injured on some sort of mission in the past month and is currently hospitalized.

Or so the rumours say.

He greets Zabuza and Haku who has also shown up to watch the matches. Zabuza grunts in his general direction – which is as polite as the man got – but Haku smiles brightly back at him and they strike up a conversation as they wait for the examination to start.

Sasuke hasn't arrived yet but Naruto figures that since the teme is training under Kakashi, it is a foregone conclusion that both of them are going to be late.

Naruto is up first and he grins viciously when it is announced that Neji will be his opponent. The stuck-up bastard preaches about fate and failures fated to be failures, which only makes Naruto want to kick his ass even more.

The Hyuuga's good, he can admit that, but Naruto hasn't trained his butt off for a month just to fail here. He throws a few dozen shadow clones at Neji and gets himself pummeled a bit before regaining his footing and increasing his own speed to dodge the blows. Neji has nothing on Yuurei when it comes to the strength of his punches.

Naruto feels for the older boy when Neji shows him the Caged Bird Seal but he doesn't let up as he fights to win. Fate isn't set in stone, after all. If it is, he'd still be back at the Academy.

His Kamikaze jutsu still isn't very strong but he only needs it to buy some time, so, to the audience's general astonishment, he whips up three small tornadoes and hurls them at Neji. As expected, his opponent barrels through the attack with little difficulty before lunging for Naruto. Naruto has already replaced himself with a clone though, and he swiftly slips away underground with the Hidden Mole Jutsu.

He pops up again the moment Neji drops his guard and finishes the other boy off with an uppercut in his blind spot that promptly knocks the Hyuuga out.

And he hasn't even needed to use the damn fox's chakra. He has won all on his own merit.

Sasuke is seriously late though and Naruto is both grateful and resentful that the Sandaime decides to postpone the match. Had it been anyone else, they would have been disqualified.

When Sasuke finally does arrive with Kakashi and his teammate's match is well under way, the entire stadium descends into chaos.

Kabuto places a sleep-inducing genjutsu on them that Naruto automatically deflects, relieved that Sakura is able to do the same. It seems, however, that this insane invasion of the village courtesy of Otogakure and Sunagakure does not completely take everyone off guard and Naruto finally realizes just why the Jounin have all been so wired.

The retaliation of the older shinobi is fast and coordinated and leaves the invading nins staggered. Naruto wants to pull his own weight though and Kakashi soon orders him and Sakura, along with Pakkun, to grab Shikamaru and go after Sasuke.

The next few hours happen in bits and pieces that Naruto can barely recall in its entirety later on. He remembers battling Gaara, and Sasuke using his Cursed Seal (the idiot), and Sakura almost getting crushed to death, though not quite in that order.

He wins though, and then blacks out for a bit after scolding Gaara. When he wakes up shortly after, he finds his injuries mostly healed (no surprise there), and Gaara's as well, but it comes as something of a surprise when he finds both Sasuke and Sakura on the mend too.

His surprise fades when he feels just the faintest hint of Yuurei's chakra in the air and catches a glimpse of bright yellow hair between the foliage above.

By the time they all reach Konoha again, Naruto rushes to the hospital when he hears that the Sandaime is injured. He sneaks in through the vents mostly unnoticed and eavesdrops on the handfuls of shinobi gossiping about the recent events.

Did you hear? Gekkou-san's the only reason we were prepared for the invasion. He overheard a conversation between a spy and a Suna-nin, one Jounin murmurs.

Did you hear? Another shoots back. Someone cut in at the last minute just before Gekkou-san was struck down by that Suna-nin. He'd be dead if it hadn't been for the intervention. And then the same person dumped them both at the hospital. Gekkou-san didn't see who saved him but that was how he could warn the Hokage.

Inoichi-sama wiped the Suna-nin's memories of that encounter before sending him back out, a third Jounin revealed eagerly. Orochimaru would've known we were preparing a counterattack otherwise.

I hear that same someone who helped Gekkou-san placed a seal on Orochimaru and managed to shut away his Impure World Reincarnation technique, the first ninja speaks up again in hushed tones.

There's no way the Sandaime would have survived if it hadn't been for that seal, the second remarks.

Why doesn't whoever did it show themselves? The third enquires. They'll be rewarded, no doubt about that.

That is enough for Naruto and he creeps back out and starts helping with the cleanup even as he remembers the Forest of Death and Yuurei attacking Orochimaru with that ball of chakra. His mentor must have planted the seal back then.

But how? Had Yuurei already heard of the snake bastard's reincarnation jutsu and decided to seal it just in case?

Naruto sprints home the moment one of the older ninjas dismisses him and tells him to go get some rest. He bursts into his apartment and throws every lock he has before tackling Yuurei, who is already sitting on his old couch, with a hug.

Naruto doesn't ask any questions because he knows Yuurei doesn't like answering them but he doesn't like lying either, so he only thanks the man profusely for saving jiji.

Yuurei rubs the back of his head, looking mildly embarrassed, before ordering Naruto off to take a shower. Naruto obeys and comes back out to fried rice and egg with ketchup on top and Yuurei stays for three hours before tucking Naruto into bed, and Naruto thinks that, despite the whole invasion thing, it's one of the best days of his life.

VI.

Three days later, Naruto is summoned to the Hokage's office where the Sandaime is sitting behind his desk once more. The old man looks a bit pale and has bandages wrapped around one hand and probably in a lot of other places under his clothes but Naruto knows he could be looking a lot worse.

To his stunned amazement, Naruto, along with Shikamaru, are both promoted to Chuunin without delay. The old man smiles briefly at him, fond and proud, and Naruto's heart swells.

He and Shikamaru leave together and he's only a little bit jealous when he spots Shikamaru's team waiting for the lazy teen.

Shikamaru's always been too perceptive for his own good, in Naruto's opinion, because his Academy friend studies him for a moment and then scans the waiting room before sighing, "You can come celebrate with us.

"Don't complain," He adds when Naruto opens his mouth to object because he thinks team celebrations are important and outsiders really shouldn't butt in. "It's too troublesome to listen to. You're coming."

And that was that. Ino sniffs at him but she's nowhere near as cold as she used to be when they were at the Academy. Chouji just grins good-naturedly at him and Asuma welcomes him with a genial smile.

So Naruto goes, and he finds himself having fun as he and Chouji empties Asuma's wallet and Ino struggles with her diet even as they convince her to eat more and Asuma laments about being broke and Shikamaru tells them that they're all troublesome beyond words.

By the end of the day, after he says goodbye to Team Ten, Naruto wishes, just a bit wistfully, that Team Seven could be a little like that too.

But he forgets about it soon enough because Yuurei is waiting for him at his apartment and the man has already gotten wind of Naruto's promotion somehow and there's freakin' confetti everywhere, as well as a present wrapped in orange paper sitting on the coffee table.

Naruto gapes and then dissolves into gales of laughter because Yuurei is covered with confetti as well. The man had probably tried to decorate the place and had failed big time, but the funniest part is the fact that he's never seen his mentor looking as disgruntled and embarrassed as he is now.

Naruto gets whacked upside the head for it but nothing can dampen his mood, especially after he carefully unwraps his present and finds a brand-new pair of chakra blades. The blade is smooth but wickedly curved like a mini-scythe, and they are worn like brass knuckles, which fits his hand-to-hand close combat style. Naruto has absolutely no idea how to go about using them but they instantly become his favourite weapons.

"I'll start teaching you how to use them when you come back," Yuurei promises.

Naruto sets the weapons down on his bedside table before he goes to bed and doesn't know what Yuurei means when he says 'when you come back' until Jiraiya comes around the very next day and says they have an important mission to go on.

Sometimes, Naruto wonders if Yuurei can tell the future.

VII.

Naruto doesn't see Yuurei again for several weeks. The Sandaime, though still very much alive, is announcing his retirement and promptly sends Jiraiya, along with Naruto, to go fetch some old bag named Tsunade.

It is ridiculous how much Naruto misses Yuurei's presence, and he even worries that the man might not visit him anymore when he returns to Konoha. Jiraiya picks up Naruto's gloomy demeanour and, most likely thinking he is homesick or something equally stupid, actually attempts to cheer him up by offering to teach him the Rasengan.

It doesn't take long for Naruto to realize that the Rasengan looks exactly like the jutsu Yuurei had hit Orochimaru with all those weeks ago in the Forest of Death. He keeps his mouth shut about it though and works like a demon to perfect the jutsu. The new Hokage is on the line, not to mention he couldn't wait to go home and test the attack against Yuurei's Rasengan.

In the meantime though, Jiraiya also casually asks where he learned the wind and earth jutsus that Naruto used during the Chuunin Exam. Naruto replies, just as casually, that he has been reading up on various scrolls in the library archives ever since the end of the exam's second stage. It's not entirely a lie – he has been reading various scrolls but they're usually brought to him by Yuurei.

Jiraiya hums and says nothing more, but Naruto can't tell whether his half-truth has been believed.

A few days after that, Orochimaru appears again – honestly, doesn't the bastard have anything better to do? – along with Kabuto but Naruto doesn't hesitate to give as good as he got and thrusts a perfect Rasengan straight into the traitorous medic-nin's stomach.

Naruto is too injured to continue fighting after that but Tsunade starts the healing process before hopping off to fight and he's perfectly content to watch as the Sannin have a freaky showdown with their Summons.

Orochimaru seems intent on reaching Naruto though, and the Snake Sannin even snarls at Naruto and demands to know 'who attacked him in the Forest'. Naruto doesn't say a word, and he thanks the Kami that Tsunade and Jiraiya are both too occupied with Manda to hear Orochimaru.

It doesn't take too long after that to defeat Orochimaru, or at least make the snake bastard retreat with his creepy lackey, and the four of them are soon hitting the road again.

Jiraiya laughs when Shizune enquires as to why Naruto seems so desperate for them to pick up their pace and the pervert tells them that Naruto is simply homesick and that he was sulking for most of the way when they left Konoha too.

Naruto denies this noisily and gets into a fight with both Tsunade and Jiraiya but he lets them think what they want in the end without too much fuss – after all, being homesick implies missing something at home, and Naruto can't say that's entirely untrue.

VIII.

True to his word, Yuurei immediately starts training Naruto with his new chakra blades, along with several new jutsus. It's hard going, especially when Naruto also has to learn how to channel normal chakra into them and not just how to fight with them.

"One day," Yuurei tells him during one of their water breaks. "You'll learn how to infuse wind-natured chakra into them."

"Can't I do that now?" Naruto asks because wind-natured chakra sounds infinitely cooler than just your average chakra.

Yuurei quirks a half-smile. "You've still got a long way to go before that happens, kid."

Naruto huffs. "I am not a kid. I'm Chuunin now!"

Yuurei laughs and Naruto is always pleased to hear that because his mentor rarely ever laughs. "You're hotheaded and reckless and still a midget, not to mention you're also twelve. You're still a kid."

Naruto sticks his tongue out at Yuurei before jumping to his feet. "Match your Rasengan against mine again! I've been practicing!"

Yuurei sighs but gets to his feet as well. The privacy wards Naruto's mentor has set up prevent other people from sensing the explosions of chakra and Naruto can fight as crazily as he wants without having to worry about drawing attention.

IX.

Naruto is rushing at Sasuke with a Rasengan and Sasuke is hurtling towards him with a Chidori. Sakura is screaming at them from the side to stop but Naruto can't stop because he can see the desperation in Sasuke's eyes behind the anger and resentment. It will hurt Sasuke more if he stops, not to mention he'll most likely get killed if he pulls back now.

And then Kakashi is there and he deflects both their attacks into different water towers before ushering Sasuke away for a private talk. Naruto scowls after them before turning to comfort Sakura who is still white in the face.

Later, when he is eating dinner with Yuurei, he grumbles, "Kakashi-sensei always favours Sasuke. What's so good about him anyway? I'm the one who made Chuunin. And we're a four-man team. Why does Kakashi-sensei spend so much time with Sasuke-teme?"

A long silence ensues and just when Naruto is sure that Yuurei won't answer this question either, his mentor remarks quietly, "He is afraid."

Naruto blinks. "Who? Kakashi-sensei? Why?"

Yuurei inclines his head and takes a sip of tea. "Let me ask you a question: what does Sasuke want most right now?"

Naruto opens his mouth to say 'grow stronger', but that's not quite right because Naruto wants to grow stronger too, except he wants to grow stronger because he wants to become Hokage and gain enough strength to protect the people he cares about.

And he probably knows Sasuke better than most – it's always been like that – so Naruto thinks and suspects that his teammate wants to grow stronger because he wants-

"Revenge," He says out loud, recalling their first day as Team Seven even the word sends a shiver down his spine. "He wants revenge. He wants to kill his brother."

Yuurei nods gravely. "There's a saying: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves."

Naruto feels cold.

"Kakashi is afraid," Yuurei continues in an almost hypnotic murmur. "Afraid of what Sasuke could become, afraid of what he would be willing to do, willing to trade, all to achieve the power he needs for his revenge."

Yuurei taps the side of his neck, right where Sasuke's Cursed Seal would be. "Orochimaru has given him a taste of power, no matter how corrupt it is. And Sasuke... well, Sasuke just might take him up on that offer. Your sensei can see that, so he tries his best to steer Sasuke back onto the straight and narrow, so to speak."

His mentor smiles rather sardonically. "He doesn't pay as much attention to you two because Sasuke is the problem child. Sakura is far too weak at the moment to cause much harm to anyone, not to mention that she does have a good heart. And you, Naruto, you have your beliefs and you stand by them no matter what. Your moral fibre is stronger than Sasuke's could ever be. Sasuke's the one who has both the potential and the qualities to stray, and Kakashi is afraid of that. It isn't right – not by a long shot – and I'm not trying to make up excuses for him but Kakashi really is doing the best he can."

Naruto swallows hard. "But- But Sasuke wouldn't-"

He stops because he remembers the look in his teammate's eyes and knows that Sasuke would.

"I'll stop him then!" Naruto declares resolutely, thumping a fist against the table for emphasis. "If he tries to go to Orochimaru for power, I'll kick his ass and drag him back to the village!"

It would be a while yet before Naruto would understand why Yuurei looks so very sad at that moment.

X.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU STOP HIM?!" Naruto rages the moment he is released from the hospital and is back in his apartment. "YOU KNEW, DIDN'T YOU?! YOU KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN! YOU KNEW SASUKE WOULD LEAVE!"

Yuurei only sits calmly at the table, waiting patiently for Naruto's anger to run its course. Naruto hates it.

Sasuke had left in the middle of the night and Naruto, Shikamaru, Kiba, Chouji, and Neji had all set out after him, only to be met with the Sound Four.

Naruto had gone on ahead, leaving his teammates to handle the Sound-nins, but he was stopped by Kimimaro until Lee, Haku, and even Zabuza had caught up and told him to hurry on.

Naruto had, and then he had clashed with Sasuke at the Valley of the End, Rasengan against Chidori, the Kyuubi against the Cursed Seal.

In the end, he had realized he could never outright kill or even critically injure Sasuke but, apparently, Sasuke could. His teammate's Chidori would've plowed straight through his stomach if familiar wind chakra hadn't cut in at that exact moment, wrapping around his body and shielding him from the worst of the damage.

Naruto had managed to scratch Sasuke's headband though, and right before he had blacked out, all he could see was the resentment in Sasuke's eyes. The moron had probably mistaken the wind chakra for Naruto's.

And then he had woken up in the hospital with all his teammates badly wounded and Sasuke gone.

And all he had been able to think of was that Yuurei had known.

"Why didn't you stop him?" Naruto finishes in a half-angry, half-desolate growl.

"And what would you have me do?" Yuurei asks evenly. "Drag him back to the village? And then what? Wait until the next time he makes a run for it and then drag him back again? And how many times am I suppose to do this before the Council calls for his execution? The only reason they haven't stuck a bounty on his head yet is because he's one of the few Uchihas left, the last one that they think might still have a chance of coming back to the village."

"You could've brought him back!" Naruto insisted, ignoring the logic in his mentor's words. "And then Sakura-chan and I could've talked to him! Talked him out of going to Orochimaru!"

"You are too naive!" Yuurei barks, and Naruto flinches because this is the first time his mentor has ever raised his voice. "Words will get you nowhere. At the moment, Sasuke considers you his rival, but other than yourself, there is no one else who can match him in terms of strength, and Sasuke, as arrogant as he can be, believes this. He doesn't think he can find enough power by staying with Konoha, so he left, and no amount of talking or begging or arguing is going to make him see otherwise.

"What you need to do right now," Yuurei leans forward, his blue gaze as hard as steel. "Is grow stronger. You fought Sasuke, and while I blocked most of the Chidori, you still fainted, and Sasuke considers that his win. So you need to grow stronger, and not just you either – every single one of your peers have to grow stronger if you want to get him back, and then you have to work together to bring him back to the village. Actions speak louder than words. Show him that being a part of Konoha can give him all the strength he'll ever need."

Naruto knows that his mentor is right but he's still in no mood to really listen, to understand and accept, so he storms away to his room and makes sure to slam his bedroom door, even if it does make him feel like a child throwing a temper tantrum.

He throws himself onto his bed and burrows underneath his blankets. He just wants to forget the shitstorm that Team Seven has become in the past twenty-four hours.

XI.

Naruto doesn't see Yuurei for several months after that, and as each day passes, he becomes a little more worried that his mentor isn't coming back. Ever since his first A-class mission in Wave – which seemed like an eternity ago – Yuurei's only stayed away for a few weeks at the most, and that was when Naruto had gone to retrieve Tsunade with Jiraiya.

He has other things to keep him occupied though, such as a mission to Otogakure in the hopes of finding Sasuke, as well as another collision with Mizuki, as well as several other missions all across the continent.

He also hears the news and rumours of labs turning up all over the place, piles of scrap metal burnt to the ground, and all of them with proof of Orochimaru's work.

And then Jiraiya suggests a two-and-a-half-year training trip on the road, and while Naruto readily jumps on the offer, he also begs the Toad Sage to give him a week before they departed. Jiraiya looks somewhat confused but agrees easily enough and heads back to the Bathing House to do more of his research.

Meanwhile, Naruto spends half his time at home and the other half either running around town in the hopes of bumping into his mentor or in their training area, honing his skills with his chakra blades. It's been four months, almost five, and he isn't just worried anymore – he's afraid.

What if he has upset Yuurei so much that the man no longer wanted anything to do with him? What if he never sees Yuurei again and the last thing Naruto says to the man had been out of reckless anger?

"I'm sorry," He says to the air in his apartment on the last day before he is to leave with Jiraiya. "You were right, of course. I was just mad."

Obviously, there's no reply, and it's with a heavy heart that Naruto starts packing his bag before going to bed.

He doesn't remember falling asleep but he wakes with a jerk when his nose picks up the scent of blood and the familiar presence in his apartment.

He trips out of bed in a tangle of sheets and barrels out of his room and into the bathroom where the coppery tang is strongest.

And there is Yuurei, wrapping a bloody gash on his arm in gauze and looking as if he has never left, and before Naruto can stop himself, he lunges forward and wraps his arms around his startled mentor's waist.

Twenty minutes later, Naruto is still sniffling a bit and Yuurei is apologizing for worrying – not scaring, damn it – him.

"I was investigating some things," Yuurei tells him as he flexes his injured limb. "Took me longer than I thought it would."

"You got hurt!" Naruto accuses. "You're too strong to get hurt!"

Yuurei chuckles. "I was careless. Ran into an ambush on my way out of one of Orochimaru's labs."

Naruto's eyes widened. "You're the one destroying that snake bastard's labs!"

Yuurei's features take on a distinctly satisfied edge. "Word's reached Konoha then? Have you heard anything else about that? If anyone's going to do anything about it?"

Naruto shakes his head. "I heard from Ero-sennin – he says baa-chan isn't gonna interfere since you- well, someone out there is doing them a favour. She might send people to investigate and maybe even try to get in touch with you to find your allegiance sooner or later though."

Yuurei nods thoughtfully before his gaze sharpens. "You know, I don't think I've ever given you a concrete reason for you to trust me, and since I'm technically not part of Konoha, you're actually committing treason by giving me information."

Naruto gives this the look it deserves and scoffs loudly. "Doesn't matter; I trust you. You've done nothing but help ever since you appeared. Besides, what I just told you is pretty much common knowledge in the village. If you didn't hear it from me, you'd have heard it from someone else."

Yuurei arches an eyebrow. "I could be out to destroy Konoha by getting close to you."

Naruto eyes his mentor closely, arms crossed.

"I don't think you would do that," He says slowly. "You train me seriously when you don't have to. You could just teach me low-level jutsus, but you don't. And you didn't have to buy me those chakra blades. And you didn't have to save Haku. And you didn't have to heal Sasuke and Sakura-chan after Gaara beat them up. And you didn't have to save that examiner guy or jiji for that matter. And-"

"Alright, alright, I get it," Yuurei looks amused. "I came back to see you off. You're starting that training trip with Ero-sennin today, right?"

Naruto brightens and grins widely, partly because Yuurei is the only other person who calls Jiraiya by that nickname, before scampering off to grab his bag. He downs five cups of ramen, all the while chattering on about all the missions he has gone on during Yuurei's absence.

"Will you..." Naruto scratched his head awkwardly. "Will you be following us? Or am I not going to see you for two-and-a-half years?"

"Oh, you'll see me," Yuurei assures, leaning against the doorframe as Naruto puts on his sandals. "Not when Ero-sennin's around but I'll drop by once in a while to check how you're doing. Remember the katas I showed you and keep working on your jutsus. Nag Jiraiya into sparring with you when you're using your chakra blades."

Naruto nods happily but pauses on the steps of the apartment complex. "Yuurei-san?"

Yuurei cocked his head. "Hm?"

"Why me?" Naruto blurts out before he can lose his nerve. This is the one question he has always wanted to ask, ever since Yuurei has become a permanent fixture in his life. "Why did you choose me to stick with and train?"

Yuurei stares at him for a long moment, and Naruto spares this time to, once again, take in the sunshine hair and ocean eyes, so like his own in every way. A little too young to be his father – not to mention Naruto has his own suspicions about that; hard not to every time he caught sight of the Hokage Monument – so maybe his uncle? Cousin? Too old to be his brother.

"Because I can see your potential," Yuurei finally says, and some part of Naruto is disappointed. "Because I know how strong you can get with the proper training. Because I respect your dreams and your ideals."

Naruto frowns a bit, pleased despite himself. "Those are the only reasons?"

Yuurei waves a hand in the air. "There are two more reasons. One day, I'll tell you."

Yuurei has never gone back on his word so Naruto nods in acquiescence. "I'll hold you to that."

XII.

Naruto has a lot of fun in those two-and-a-half years on the road. He sees new places and new people and learns new jutsus from Jiraiya during most days and Yuurei on occasional nights.

Ero-sennin is surprised when Naruto asks for a spar and brandishes his chakra blades, but interest sparks in the man's eyes and he agrees. Naruto is very smug when he manages to shock Jiraiya even further by channelling chakra into the weapons.

He's not so smug when, a few nights later, Jiraiya is, astoundingly enough, not sleeping in some woman's bed and is instead getting ready for bed in the second cot in their room.

Naturally, Naruto is instantly suspicious.

"So," Jiraiya begins just as Naruto is clambering into his bed. "You're pretty good with those chakra blades of yours. Where'd you get them?"

Naruto has already thought of this, and he has even double-checked with Yuurei just in case. His mentor has told him that he had henged into a nondescript shinobi before entering the store. "Custom-made at Tenten's father's shop. Why?"

Jiraiya shrugs nonchalantly. "Just curious. Where'd you learn how to use them?"

This is something Naruto has prepared as well. Call him paranoid but he doesn't want Yuurei to get into any trouble, especially on his account. "I learned by myself, but I've seen Asuma-sensei train with his own chakra blades as well, so I sorta tried to copy him a bit."

Jiraiya is silent for a long minute, and Naruto can't help fidgeting but he hides it by pretending to arrange his blankets and pillow. When the silence stretches beyond unnerving, Naruto is forced to look up.

He has to fight to retain a wide-eyed, mildly confused but innocent look on his face when he finds himself pinned with intent dark grey eyes. He thinks he finally understands just why Jiraiya is known as one of the three Sannin.

"You know you can trust me, right Naruto?" The white-haired man asks. It is the most serious Naruto has ever seen him.

Naruto pulls a Yuurei and arches an eyebrow even as he conceals how nervous he is and maybe even a little guilty. "Where's this coming from, Ero-sennin?"

Naruto catches a flash of disappointment in Jiraiya's eyes before the Sannin heaves a sigh and waves a dismissive hand. The easygoing pervert persona is back. "Nevermind. Go to sleep, brat. We've got a long day tomorrow."

Naruto rolls over to face the wall but he doesn't sleep much that night.

XIII.

"Do you think it would be okay to tell Ero-sennin about you?" Naruto asks two weeks later when Yuurei drops by for a visit. They're sitting on the roof of the hotel he and Jiraiya are staying in at the moment, though the damn pervert's gone off to woo another bimbo at the nearby bar again.

Yuurei glances down at him as he absently traces chakra seals in the air and Naruto attempts to copy it. "Do you want to?"

Naruto wavers and then nods. "Yeah, I kinda do. I mean, he's an incurable pervert. Short of hooking up with baa-chan, there's no way he's ever gonna stop, but he's still my sensei and he's the only one – besides you – who's ever taken an interest in me and really trains me."

Yuurei nods but doesn't say anything.

Naruto presses on because Yuurei hasn't said no, but he hasn't said yes either. "And he got this really serious look on his face the other night – it was almost creepy. Anyway, he asked me if I knew I could trust him. Talk about a guilt trip."

Yuurei hums noncommittally. "Well, I have said from the very beginning that you could tell anyone about me."

"Because you don't get caught?" Even now, Naruto still wonders how Yuurei manages to sneak in and out of the village without anyone the wiser – the guards on duty must seriously suck. Even he hasn't found a way yet.

"That's right," Yuurei confirms with an odd smile. "I never get caught."

"I'll tell him about you first," Naruto offers. "It's not like you have to meet him or anything. Although I suppose he'll be worried about Konoha's security once he realizes you can get in like a..."

He pauses but Yuurei finishes for him with an ironic expression. "Ghost?"

Naruto grins sheepishly. "Yeah. ...Is Yuurei even your real name?"

"A real name is one you acknowledge as your own," Yuurei counters serenely. "But it isn't the name my parents gave me, no."

Naruto pouts. "Will you ever tell me that name then?"

"Maybe," Yuurei shrugs before glancing up at the moon hanging in the night sky. "You know, Jiraiya has his own secrets concerning you."

Naruto's eyes narrow. "Really?"

Yuurei nods. "Oh yeah. He knows exactly who you are. He even knew your parents."

Naruto stiffened. "My parents? Do you know my parents?"

Yuurei makes an affirmative sound at the back of his throat. "Though maybe it's better if you get that pervert to tell you. He is your godfather."

Naruto's jaw drops. At the back of his mind, he notes that Yuurei's eyes seem to be laughing at him. "My- My godfather?! Oh my god, what were my parents thinking?!"

Yuurei snickers at his expense. "Ask Jiraiya. Then again, you should have a good idea as to who your old man is."

Naruto freezes. Yuurei always seems to know what he's thinking. "...You mean I'm right? My dad... My dad's the-"

His voice automatically drops to a whisper. "The Yondaime?"

Yuurei smiles. "Got it in one. But that's enough bombs for tonight. Go ask Ero-sennin for more information if you're curious."

Naruto reluctantly agrees and Yuurei soon sends him off to bed because he can't concentrate anyway.

Sometimes, he feels like Yuurei knows his entire life story, especially when the man pops something like this on him.

XIV.

Jiraiya sprays his sake all over the table when Naruto pipes up over dinner the very next night, "So, godfather, mind telling me about my parents?"

Naruto watches with deep satisfaction as his sensei hacks and coughs, spluttering in shock. To be fair, he was waiting for the man to take a swig of the alcohol before voicing his question.

"Wh- What brought this on?" Jiraiya chokes out as he recovers.

Naruto shrugs, feigning indifference. "I'm curious. No one's ever told me about my mum or dad. I mean..."

He pauses and waits for Jiraiya to take a fortifying gulp of sake – not a very smart move on his sensei's part.

"...I don't know anything about my dad, except the fact that he's the Yondaime."

Another spit-take, and Naruto snorts with laughter as Jiraiya pounds on his own chest, trying to clear his airway.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Jiraiya accuses as he carefully puts aside the alcohol.

"What gave it away?" Naruto sniggers. "Serves you right, keeping secrets like this from me."

"It was to keep you safe!" Jiraiya harrumphs. "Why do you think I never had a hand in raising you? I was out spying and fending off any enemies that might want to harm you!"

"And you couldn't find the time to stop by even once?" Naruto points out, trying to keep the resentment out of his voice. His childhood was on the miserable side, all things considered, but he isn't going to dredge that up now. He doesn't want pity.

Jiraiya at least has the decency to look ashamed. "Sarutobi-sensei said that he'd take care of you. And you looked so much like Minato, even as a baby. I was... I thought I might up and take you with me one day if I saw you too much. You were safer in Konoha."

Naruto clicked his tongue derisively and couldn't help muttering vindictively, "Yeah, growing up on the streets and in the Red-Light District was real safe."

Jiraiya jolts and he looks genuinely surprised. "Red-Light District? Streets? Sensei said he placed you in an orphanage."

Naruto eyeballs him and scowls scornfully at the man. "Kicked me out when I was four and old enough to take care of myself. What'd you expect? I share room and board with a demon fox!"

Jiraiya looks pale, maybe even a bit sick.

"I- I didn't know that," He stutters uncharacteristically, and behind the helpless bewilderment, something dark and dangerous burns in his eyes.

Naruto softens against his will. "Whatever, it's in the past. It already happened and, on the bright side, I learned every shortcut and hiding place in Konoha. I even know how to sneak into the Hyuuga Compound without being seen."

Jiraiya smiles somewhat weakly and it doesn't quite reach his eyes so Naruto prompts, "So? My parents? Who was my mother?"

And that's how Naruto finds out about Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina. Jiraiya is a good storyteller. It's no surprise – the man may write smut for a living but Naruto's read some of it after getting curious and the orange books actually have pretty good plots.

"But how did you know I'm your godfather?" Jiraiya asks three hours later.

Naruto hesitates. This is it. Yuurei has as good as given his permission for Naruto to tell Jiraiya about him but, at the same time, Naruto knows that he will never forgive himself if his sensei, who is also Konoha's main spy and advisor to baa-chan, gets Yuurei arrested or captured or tortured or executed or all of them combined.

In the end, it all comes down to trust. Does he trust Jiraiya?

Naruto takes a deep breath. "He's no danger to me."

Jiraiya is suddenly alert and doesn't even glance at the alcohol anymore, having already guessed what Naruto is going on about.

"He's been training me," Naruto explains. "Have you heard from jiji or even Kakashi-sensei about that mission Team Seven went on in Wave? That was the first time I met him. Actually, I didn't even see him that time but he helped me save Haku by somehow making me faster. And then the next time was during the Chuunin Exam when Sasuke, Sakura-chan, and I were facing off against Orochimaru. I think that snake bastard was trying to put some sort of seal on me to cut off the Kyuubi's chakra but something snapped the branch I was standing on and made me fall just before Orochimaru could do anything. And then Sakura-chan was knocked out and he appeared and tried to save Sasuke-"

He babbles on but Jiraiya soon raises a hand and leans forward to look him in the eye. "This person you're talking about – is he the one who saved that examiner? Gekkou Hayate? And the Sandaime as well by sealing Orochimaru's reincarnation jutsu?"

Naruto nods vigorously and watches as Jiraiya settles back with a contemplative look on his face. "And let me guess – he's not a Konoha-nin?"

Naruto grunts evasively but Jiraiya takes this as a confirmation and sighs heavily.

"I can see why you didn't want to tell me," Jiraiya comments.

Naruto huffs. "That's not the only reason. Yuurei-san is- Well he's my secret. I mean, he has dinner waiting for me when I come home late from training and he spars with me and helps me learn jutsus and he bought me my chakra blades."

"So he's the one who bought them for you," Jiraiya doesn't look surprised.

"Yeah, as a present for when I was promoted to Chuunin," Naruto peers curiously at the man. "How did you know I didn't buy them?"

Jiraiya shrugs. "You could've bought them – I wouldn't know about that – but there's no way you could've learned how to channel chakra into those blades and fight with them as well as you can without someone teaching you. When you fight with those weapons, there aren't any rough edges to your movements. You couldn't possibly fight like that just by watching somebody train, not to mention your style isn't one that looks like you just made up on the spot, and I know for a fact that Asuma doesn't fight like you do."

Naruto grins, feeling unreasonably pleased.

"So his name is Yuurei?" Jiraiya enquires idly. "Strange name, although I suppose it suits him if he can come and go from Konoha without getting caught."

"He says it's the name he goes by now," Naruto reveals. "But that it isn't the name his parents gave him."

"I rather doubt it would be," Jiraiya agrees dryly. "What made you change your mind about telling me anyway?"

Naruto rubs the back of his neck. "Yuurei-san's never told me I couldn't tell anyone. In fact, he said I could tell as many as I wanted to, but I wanted to make sure with him first."

Jiraiya stills. "He's been here?"

Naruto blinks. "Yeah, he came by yesterday. I never know when he's going to drop by but he visits whenever he has time. I thought you would've realized by now. He's the one who told me that you're my godfather."

"I assumed he told you before we left the village," Jiraiya grumbles. "Where does this guy get his information anyway? No one knows I'm your godfather besides the old man and Tsunade."

Naruto shrugs. "No idea. Yuurei-san seems to know everything."

Jiraiya snorts. "And you accept it just like that, huh? Typical."

Naruto rolls his eyes at him but they both stay quiet for several minutes.

"Did he ever mention what he does when he isn't around?" Jiraiya asks next.

Naruto shakes his head. "Not really. He disappeared right after Sasuke ran off though and didn't come back until the day before we left on this trip. I asked him about it and he said-"

"-he was out destroying Orochimaru's labs," Jiraiya finishes.

Naruto blinks and nods carefully. His sensei looks a bit thunderstruck all of a sudden. "Ero-sennin?"

"Did he say how he did it?" Jiraiya sounds almost urgent. "I've been looking for those labs for years and only found two. He found and destroyed seven labs in the span of four months!"

Naruto shakes his head again. "Dunno. He always says he never gets caught though. But he came home after four months with a bloody arm!"

Jiraiya's brow furrowed. "Nothing too bad?"

"No," Naruto taps his left arm. "He said he got careless on the way out of one of the labs. Got caught in an ambush."

Jiraiya nods and finally reaches for his sake again. "How long does it usually take for him to drop by? Not back in Konoha. Visiting you on the road I mean."

Naruto shrugs. "Could be a day, could be two weeks – that's the longest so far. ...You're not gonna... try to kill him, are you?"

Jiraiya glances at him. "All things considered, he hasn't done anything to harm Konoha. Besides, he found a way to seal a powerful forbidden jutsu that Orochimaru completed without letting him know. That takes skill. Unless he's a confirmed enemy, I don't feel like fighting him."

"He snuck into Konoha," Naruto reminds him.

Jiraiya grunts. "Brat, do you want me to kill him?"

Naruto drew himself up indignantly. "Of course not!"

"Then don't complain!" Jiraiya snaps. "Right now, as far as I can see, he's doing Konoha a favour. The more labs he destroys, the better it is for us. Not to mention he saved the Sandaime. As much as I hate to admit it, the old man is past his prime. If Orochimaru had succeeded in raising the Shodaime and Nidaime as he had planned, Sensei wouldn't have survived."

Naruto relaxes at last. Jiraiya snorts at his expression. "That's some faith you have in me, kid."

Naruto glares. "Well how would I know? Just because I trust Yuurei-san doesn't mean you would. You're loyal to Konoha."

"So are you," Jiraiya says pointedly.

"Yeah, but I know Yuurei-san," Naruto clarifies. "I know he'd never betray Konoha."

Jiraiya pauses, drink halfway to his mouth. "How do you know that?"

Naruto remains motionless for a long while. "There was this one time – it was the only time I ever saw him anywhere other than my apartment or the clearing in the forest that we usually go to train in – I was passing by the Memorial Stone on my way to Training Ground Three to meet up with my teammates. And I saw him there. He was standing in front of it and I was gonna go over and say hi but... he just looked so sad standing there, almost like he wanted to cry. I didn't want to disturb him."

Naruto shrugs, discomfited and already feeling guilty for telling Jiraiya this. "I just don't think anyone who could look like that while they're staring at the names of dead people can willingly harm the village that those people are from."

Jiraiya says nothing in response to this revelation. There isn't really much one could say.

"Can I meet him?" Jiraiya queries instead.

Naruto shrugs, half of him already rebelling against this idea. "I dunno. I'll ask him the next time he comes."

And that is that. They finish dinner and turns in for the night. The only thing Naruto keeps to himself is the fact that Yuurei just might be his relative because Jiraiya never mentions that his father had any siblings and Naruto can't bring himself to ask.

XV.

"He wants to meet you."

"No. Not now."

XVI.

"He said no."

"Seeing as he's not here, I gathered that much for myself, thanks."

"He said not now."

"Then maybe later?"

XVII.

It's been almost two years since Naruto first started on this journey. He's just turned fifteen and Jiraiya's decided to celebrate with him again. The man had done the same when he had turned fourteen but Naruto still finds it somewhat surprising.

Yuurei still refuses to meet Jiraiya but the Toad Sage has long since accepted the former's presence in Naruto's life, and even graciously turns a blind eye whenever Naruto perks up in the middle of the day upon sensing Yuurei's chakra signature and allows him to skip off to go train with his mentor instead.

That is another unusual thing though. No matter how hard Jiraiya tries or how much Naruto tries to help, his sensei cannot sense Yuurei's chakra signature. It mystifies Jiraiya, especially since Naruto can pick it up quite easily now.

"Yuurei-san got me a present!" Naruto announces the moment he returns to the hotel room he and Jiraiya is staying in.

His sensei is already sitting on the floor with a messily-wrapped gift on the side and a slightly lopsided birthday cake topped with fifteen candles in front of him.

"What is it this time?" Jiraiya eyes the orange present in Naruto's hands pensively. "It better not be another ten-million-yen gift. He's making me look bad."

Naruto scoffs. "You're just cheap, Ero-sennin. The ice bombs and sealing tags he got me last year weren't that expensive. Nobody told you to get me a wallet."

Jiraiya looks highly affronted. "Your old one tore during practice so I got you a new one! Do you know how long it took me to find a frog wallet?"

Naruto grins as he flops down opposite his sensei. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Don't sulk, Ero-sennin. You're a grown man."

They spend the next hour snacking on cake as Naruto blows out his candles – he wishes for Sasuke's return – and opens his presents.

Jiraiya has given him-

"A book?" Naruto asks dubiously.

Jiraiya throws him a dirty look. "Your enthusiasm overwhelms me. Yes, a book. I wrote it."

Naruto is even more incredulous at this. "You gave me porn for my birthday?"

Jiraiya throws up his hands. "For God's sakes, brat, not everything I write is porn! Could you at least read the title before passing judgement?"

Naruto reluctantly picks up the book and squints at the cover. "'The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi'. Seriously? What kinda title is that?"

Jiraiya heaves a long-suffering sigh. "It was the first book I ever wrote. It was also your father's favourite book. You were named after the main character."

Naruto straightens, a little more interested now. He flips through the book and gives it a cursory scan before setting it aside.

"It's gonna take me a while to finish reading it," He concludes bluntly. He's never been a big fan of books. "But thanks."

Jiraiya sighs again and waves a hand. "You're welcome. Let's see what your ghost got you. It's bound to be more exciting than a book."

Naruto grins unapologetically and tears into the orange package. Inside is-

"A scroll?" He scratches his head before unrolling it. An intricate seal that almost makes Naruto's head spin spans the inside of the scroll.

Jiraiya leans forward as well and they study it together. Naruto doesn't get it, even after fifteen minutes of complete silence, but his sensei seems to understand because the man's eyes widen and he seizes the scroll for a closer look.

"My God," He breathes, and Naruto nudges his knee.

"What is it?" He demands. "What does that seal do?"

Jiraiya lowers the scroll. Frankly, he looks like he's been hit over the head with a hammer.

"What does it do?" Jiraiya echoes. "Naruto, your ghost friend is a genius. This seal, if I'm reading it correctly, counteracts the Cursed Seal of Heaven."

Naruto blinks, and then blinks again before he gets it. "Cursed Seal-? You mean the snake bastard's Cursed Seal? So that thing can get rid of the Seal Orochimaru stuck on Sasuke?!"

"Exactly," Jiraiya isn't looking at him anymore, studying the scroll once more. "I don't know how he did it, but he did it. Just a tenth of this thing is mind-boggling. Even if I had all the information on the Cursed Seal at my disposal, it would literally take me years to come up with something like-"

Jiraiya stops abruptly, realization dawning in his eyes. "Ah, that's why."

"What's why?" Naruto prods impatiently.

Jiraiya glances distractedly at him again. "It's why he's been going around destroying Orochimaru's labs. Or at least part of the reason anyway. He's been gathering information on the Cursed Seal. That's how he managed to come up with this. It's taken him two years and he's finally done it. And now he's handing it over to you."

Jiraiya shakes his head, still looking dumbfounded. "Your ghost has just given you half the key to getting your emo teammate back. The Cursed Seal does no favours for the victim's mental stability. What the heck did you do to get someone like this on your side, Naruto?"

Naruto has no idea but he stares at the priceless scroll and swears that someday, somehow, he would pay Yuurei back for everything he has done.

XVIII.

To Naruto's utter amusement and exasperation, Jiraiya refuses to give him back the scroll until he has studied it thoroughly. The man was like a child with a new toy.

"I want to meet him," The Sannin demands for the first time in a year and a half. "Tell him I won't report him or attack him or even speak of the meeting if that's what he's afraid of. It'll be confidential."

Naruto relays as much to Yuurei when he next sees him, after thanking the man at least two dozen times.

"Maybe," Is all Yuurei says on the matter, and Naruto is forced to leave it at that.

XIX.

The day Yuurei and Jiraiya finally meet face-to-face is four weeks after that conversation.

All Naruto remembers prior to blacking out is his idiot sensei unlocking Naruto's seal just to see what would happen. Apparently, the man hadn't expected Naruto to lose control to the damn fox.

When Naruto wakes up again, Jiraiya is sitting rather guiltily beside his bed while Yuurei is leaning against the window frame, figure bathed in the light of the setting sun.

"Wh- What happened?" He croaks hoarsely as he eases himself up into a sitting position.

Yuurei glances at him but it is Jiraiya who explains. His sensei had unlocked Naruto's seal, only for the Kyuubi to take over and end up producing a four-tailed form.

"Would've left a nasty scar if your ghost hadn't arrived when he did," Jiraiya finishes, jabbing a finger over at Yuurei. "Bought me enough time to slap a seal on you and lock the Kyuubi up again."

Naruto knows 'a nasty scar' pretty much translates to 'a life-threatening injury' and he doesn't know whether he should blame Jiraiya or blame himself.

"Blame him," Yuurei speaks up at last, fishing Naruto's indecision from his head with ease. "He shouldn't have messed with the seal like that."

Jiraiya grimaces but doesn't argue. A stilted silence descends on the room.

"Well," Naruto attempts to lighten the mood. "At least you two finally met."

Something odd flashes across Jiraiya's face as the man turns to glance sidelong at Yuurei. "You didn't tell me what your ghost looked like, Naruto."

Naruto frowns in confusion before he understands what Jiraiya is getting at. Yuurei does look a lot like him. Put them side-by-side – or not, for that matter – and a blind man would call them family.

Naruto chews on his lip before deciding to push his advantage. It's a bit mean but Jiraiya is here so maybe they could try to weasel it out of Yuurei together.

"So... who are you?" Naruto gives his best puppy-dog eyes. "I mean, I know I've never actually said it before but you look... well you look a lot like me."

Yuurei doesn't say a word. Naruto tries again. "Are we... related?"

Yuurei continues staring at him, expression unreadable.

"I didn't know Minato had any siblings," Jiraiya murmured, studying Yuurei closely. "But I'll eat my books if you don't have at least some Namikaze blood in you."

Naruto feels ludicrously happy upon this confirmation.

Yuurei finally sighs but Naruto is disappointed once again when his mentor only shakes his head. "I'm not going to lie to you, Naruto, so I will not say anything. Think what you want – it doesn't really change who I am in the end."

Yuurei slips off the windowsill and Naruto knows the man is about to leave.

"W- Wait!" He tries to scramble out of bed but only succeeds in making himself dizzy.

"Stay in bed, brat, before you fall out of it!"

There is a moment's pause as all three of the room's occupants realize that both Yuurei and Jiraiya have reprimanded Naruto at the same time.

Naruto snickers even though his entire body aches. "Wow, are you sure you two aren't related?"

Jiraiya's mouth twitches up into a smile while Yuurei scoffs but looks amused as well.

"I won't ask then," Naruto promises now that his mentor isn't heading for the door. "But you have to tell me one day."

Yuurei sighs but inclines his head. "I did promise."

Naruto blinks. "It's one of the two reasons you picked me?"

Yuurei hums while Jiraiya glances between them, puzzled. "Reasons?"

"Why Yuurei-san chose to stick with me and train me," Naruto elaborates. "He said it was because he could see my potential and he knows how strong I can get with the proper training, and because he likes my dreams and ideals."

Yuurei snorts. "I respect them – there's a difference."

"Same thing," Naruto says flippantly before returning to his explanation. "Yuurei-san says there are two more reasons, and he promised to tell me them one day."

Jiraiya looks thoughtful as he turns back to Yuurei but he doesn't comment on it. Instead, he enquires somberly, "What are your plans regarding Konoha?"

Naruto frowns in confusion again. Plans regarding Konoha? So far, Yuurei hadn't done anything except wage a one-man war against Orochimaru.

But Yuurei doesn't falter. He even looks like he has been expecting the question.

"Save it," Yuurei states with the same sort of straightforward resolve that Naruto uses when he declares his dream.

Save it, not protect it, not defend it. Save it.

Naruto is still perplexed long after Yuurei has left but he wonders if, in some way, saving Konoha is the fourth reason his mentor chose him. Jiraiya just looks contemplative.

XX.

But from that point on, as if some sort of permission has been granted, Yuurei drops by more often, and more often than not, he appears when Jiraiya is around. Likewise, the Sannin doesn't bat an eye, accepting Yuurei into their party as if he has always been there.

Then again, that is technically true.

They train Naruto together now whenever Yuurei is around, and after the first few sessions, Naruto catches a speculative gleam in Jiraiya's eyes that Naruto recognizes from his own. His sensei wants a spar with Yuurei.

But Jiraiya doesn't ask and Yuurei doesn't offer. Apparently, they're content enough with teaching Naruto together.

Naruto also gets a good laugh whenever Yuurei comes and Jiraiya is doing his research. His mentor seems to take great pleasure in kicking the Sannin headfirst into whichever bathing house or hot springs he is spying on and letting the ladies beat him up.

Jiraiya glares and complains and threatens bodily harm on the older blond but, once or twice, Naruto spots an almost fond look directed at Yuurei whenever his mentor's back is turned.

And then, one day, about two months after Jiraiya's first meeting with Yuurei, Naruto's mentor appears beside them with his typical unannounced swiftness but barely pauses before telling them, "I will be gone for a while. Two, maybe three months."

Naruto spills out protests but Jiraiya only studies Yuurei for a moment before dropping a hand on Naruto's head to shut him up.

"Nothing bad, I hope?" The Sannin enquires lightly.

Yuurei actually smiles, if a bit wryly. "If all goes well, it will be very good."

Jiraiya's eyebrows raise as Naruto rocks anxiously onto the balls of his feet but all his sensei says is, "Then I hope everything goes well."

Naruto hastily throws in his own well-wishes and they watch Yuurei disappear again.

"Come on," Jiraiya gently shoves him forward. "We have another hour before we hit the next town."

XXI.

The following weeks are strange at best. At first, nothing is really different. Naruto is used to Yuurei coming and going, and he and Jiraiya travel across the continent per usual.

But then, three weeks after Yuurei disappears on his self-appointed mission, Jiraiya receives a messenger hawk from Tsunade. This isn't very uncommon either – the old hag always sends (mostly) regular updates on the village to Jiraiya.

What is different this time is the fact that it is Takamaru who delivers the message, the fastest hawk in all of Konoha.

Naruto bounds over and reads over Jiraiya's shoulder as the Sannin wastes no time unfolding the message. The message is encrypted and it takes even his sensei half an hour and their respective chakra signatures to crack it.

Found file on desk. Pertains to Uchiha Itachi. More to Uchiha Massacre. Acted on Shimura Danzou's orders. Itachi's hand was forced – Clan or brother. All evidence confirmed. Itachi sent his own missive – is willing to pass on information on Akatsuki to you. Will be in touch. Legitimacy confirmed. (Yes, this is fucking happening – I'm not drunk. I can hardly believe it too.) Burn after reading.

A stunned silence follows. Naruto knows about Akatsuki – he has managed to badger that out of Jiraiya a year ago after Yuurei taught him how to argue properly and present stronger rationales.

He has no idea how to take this in though, and judging by Jiraiya's blank expression, the Sannin doesn't either.

Because if this is true – and baa-chan says it is; the woman is a drunk but she's good at what she does – then Itachi was forced to pick between his Clan and Sasuke by this Danzou bastard, which also means that-

That Sasuke has run off for nothing.

Naruto wonders why Yuurei – because really, who else could it possibly be? – hadn't presented the file earlier, and then feels guilty because – duh – there is no way Sasuke would have stuck around long enough to listen and, more importantly, believe, especially with Orochimaru influencing him.

But this. This changes everything.

"So Itachi's spying for us now?" Naruto pipes up when he can't stand the silence any longer.

Jiraiya shakes his head a little before tossing the missive into the fire. "Looks like it. I still want to see it with my own eyes though."

"I can't believe Yuurei-san managed to convince Itachi into spying for us though," Naruto mutters and gets a sharp look from Jiraiya.

"What?" Naruto says defensively. "You and I both know it's him doing all this."

"But how did he find out?" Jiraiya scowls in frustration. "I have the best spy network in all of Fire Country, one of the best across the entire continent, and I've never heard anything about this, not a word. And then your ghost ups and disappears for three weeks and suddenly Uchiha Itachi of all people has agreed to spy for us."

"Maybe you just suck," Naruto suggests, and promptly gets slapped upside the head.

The surprises don't end there. Another five weeks pass and another missive arrives. Naruto thinks Jiraiya looks just a bit apprehensive.

Itachi has agreed to meet you. Minakami Onsen, Yugakure, Land of Hot Water, two weeks, noon. Stay alert, and for pity's sake, don't be late. Burn after reading.

"...Well," Jiraiya sighs resignedly. "Guess we're going to Yugakure."

XXII.

"So this is a trick after all!" Naruto snarls when they reach the meeting room and finds not just Uchiha Itachi inside but Hoshigaki Kisame after all. He leaps back and reaches for his chakra blades.

Kisame only snorts mockingly and remains in his corner of the room, arms crossed. Upon closer inspection, Naruto discovers that the shark-man actually looks kinda beaten up.

"Put those away, pipsqueak," The swordsman says. "If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead, and then I'd be dead because I'd have gramps over there and your whacko lookalike after my head."

Jiraiya looks mortally offended at being called gramps but Naruto is more focused on the last bit. "'Whacko lookalike'? You met Yuu- someone who looks like me?"

"Met?" Kisame growls, but Naruto detects a measure of grudging respect behind the palpable annoyance in his voice. "Well I guess we did, in a manner of speaking. The damn runt fights like a ghost."

Yuurei really isn't that short – he's taller than average even – but Kisame is the tallest person Naruto has ever met so he supposes it makes sense. But...

"Haha!" Naruto crows, pocketing his weapons when it becomes clear that neither Akatsuki member is going to attack. "You got your ass kicked, didn't you Fish-Face?"

Kisame glowers at him but Itachi cuts in before anymore insults can be traded. "Kisame, we are wasting time."

And the atmosphere suddenly becomes heavy again as Itachi steps out of the shadows, features as boring and bland as ever. However, for once, Itachi does not have his Sharingan activated.

Odd. Does that mean Itachi doesn't consider them a threat? But no one in their right mind would outright trust former enemies at the first meeting, even if they are tentative allies now.

"Alright, let's get down to business," Jiraiya moves forward as well and sits down at the table. Itachi follows suit after a moment. "Naruto, stop antagonizing Fish-Face."

Naruto snickers while Kisame glowers even harder. Apparently, Jiraiya doesn't appreciate the gramps comment.

In a cool, concise tone, Itachi outlines Akatsuki's plans for them and Naruto soon forgets to keep an eye on Kisame because the Uchiha is telling them about a kidnapping attempt a month and a half from now, a kidnapping attempt on Gaara, because the teen is the Ichibi's Jinchuuriki.

Naruto is all for rushing off and hunting down the rest of the Akatsuki but both Jiraiya and Itachi shoots him down.

"You are not strong enough to kill them all," Itachi states flatly. "I am not strong enough to kill them all."

That shuts Naruto up, mostly because he has never expected a Uchiha to admit to a weakness.

"It is better to wait until the Akatsuki makes their move," Itachi continues monotonously. "All members will convene to extract the Ichibi, with the exception of Pain."

He goes on to describe each member – Deidara and Sasori, Kakuzu and Hidan and even Zetsu – as well as the best way to defeat each of them. Jiraiya is visibly torn between writing everything down and looking to be stuck in a perpetual state of disbelief.

"Yuurei-san has asked me to tell you to leave the woman alone," Itachi tacks on at the end. Naruto thinks it sounds plain weird for Itachi of all people to address anyone an honorific.

Jiraiya pauses. "Why?"

"He did not say," Itachi shifts minutely, eyes glued on the Sannin. "But he told me you would understand when you heard her name. She calls herself Konan."

Jiraiya noticeably freezes, unable to hide his shock for several seconds.

Naruto nudges his sensei's shoulder. "What is it? D'you know her?"

Jiraiya frowns, tapping his pencil against his chin. "She's a former student. I haven't heard anything from her for years."

"Eh?!" Naruto exclaims. "I thought you taught my dad!"

Jiraiya rolls his eyes. "Your old man's not the only person I ever taught. I've had four students before you, brat."

"And one of them ended up a criminal," Kisame smirked. "Doesn't say much for your teaching skills, gramps."

Jiraiya shoots the shark-man a thoroughly irritated look but doesn't let the insult bother him beyond that. Naruto is a different matter. His sensei could be a lazy perv on the best of days but nobody – except himself, Yuurei, and Tsunade, obviously – talks trash about the man in front of Naruto and gets away with it.

"Shut up, Fish-Face!" Naruto hollers. "What does that say about your sensei? At least one of Ero-sennin's students became a Hokage!"

There is a moment where Kisame looks taken aback and Jiraiya facepalms while Itachi looks on, one eyebrow ticked up.

"So your old man really is the Yondaime?" Kisame recovers and eyes Naruto closely. "I did wonder. Your lookalike's almost the spittin' image of the Yellow Flash too."

"Naruto, stop blurting it out everywhere you go," Jiraiya admonishes.

Naruto snorts and crosses his arms. "I have blond hair and blue eyes. The Yondaime has blond hair and blue eyes. How no one figures it out for themselves the moment they lay eyes on me, I have no idea. The entire village must be blind."

Even Itachi gains an air of faint amusement for a brief second at Naruto's words before Jiraiya pulls them all back on topic.

"Alright, I suppose I could discuss the issue with the Hokage, but if Konan really is part of Akatsuki, I can't tell others to hold back if she comes at them to kill."

Itachi gives a semblance of a shrug as if to say he is only passing on a message and that it doesn't particularly concern him whether Jiraiya listens to it or not.

God help him, Naruto's picking up Uchiha-ese.

From there, they gradually wrap up the meeting. Itachi gives his word that he will pass on the location of the extraction when he finds out before rising from his seat and begins heading for the door with Kisame.

"One more thing," Jiraiya calls after them, though his gaze remains on Itachi. "Why now? I understand you didn't have much of a choice when it came to your Clan but you've been working on your own for years now. Why agree to work with Konoha now after playing the game your way for so long?"

Itachi doesn't turn around but he doesn't immediately leave either.

"Game?" Itachi finally repeats. "An apt comparison. It is simple. A new player has entered the field – it is only logical to adjust my plans accordingly."

A second later, they are gone, and, too late, Naruto remembers that he had wanted to question the Uchiha on his reasons for goading Sasuke into killing him.

"I think," Jiraiya voices slowly after a long minute. "It's time to go home."

Naruto thinks of Gaara and the strength of the Akatsuki and the speed at which Yuurei has brought everything together in the past few months, and he can't agree more.


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Fuuton: Kamikaze – Wind Release: Divine Wind

Doton: Moguragakure no Jutsu – Earth Release: Hidden Mole Technique


This was actually meant to be a oneshot but the plotline ran away with itself and became something else. Might continue it if I have another burst of inspiration.