Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Naruto.


Author's Notes: Just a reminder that this is AU, seeing how Yuurei's made a lot of changes, and the dimension that Yuurei came from would have to be AU after a point as well for him to have to travel back in time/to another dimension.

And I should probably add that for people who love Sasuke, this most likely isn't a fic for you. Sasuke's not one of my fave characters and I don't hate him or anything either (more indifferent, I guess), but the portrayal I have of him in this fic doesn't get a lot of sympathy from me. You've been warned.


Ghost


XL.

"Err, what's going on, Baa-chan?" Naruto asks warily after even Kakashi has arrived in the office. Tsunade has been frowning pensively ever since Team Seven entered the room. The woman would have usually tried to hit at least one of them with a paperweight by now.

Tsunade's frown deepens as she rests her chin on clasped hands. "I've got good news and bad news."

"What's the good news?" Sakura looks even more anxious than Naruto feels.

Tsunade waves a piece of paper in the air. "I'm sure you all know that Nagato is head of Amegakure. Yuurei's been good enough to escort him and Konan home and they're getting back to work again. The good news is that he's extended an offer of alliance to Konoha, and he's already sworn his village's allegiance to you, specifically, Naruto."

Naruto's eyes widen. He hasn't heard from either Ame-nin since they had left with his mentor three months ago. "Seriously? I thought he was just saying that right before he left Konoha!"

Tsunade snorts. "Yes, seriously. You've got an army at your beck and call, brat. Don't go spreading it around. No complaints, I assume?"

Naruto shakes his head. "No, that's great! And you'll accept the alliance, right?"

Tsunade nods. "Of course, especially at a time like this."

She picks up another piece of paper. "This is from Yuurei. Apparently, he and his merry band of criminals are passing through Lightning right now and Jiraiya's just joined up with them. Bad news doesn't even begin covering the information they've sent us."

She pauses and heaves a deep sigh. "First of all, Orochimaru's gone-"

Naruto's jaw drops. He's not the only one. "Yuurei-san killed him?! And he didn't invite me?!"

He ducks a paperweight but holds his tongue when Tsunade scowls at him. "I'm not finished, brat! Orochimaru's gone for now because your idiot teammate decided it was a good idea to absorb that snake creep into himself!"

Naruto wracks his brain for a reason but either he really is a lot dumber than the so-called genius Sasuke or Sasuke's finally lost it because he can't, for the life of him, figure out why anyone would do something that stupid.

"But-" Naruto scratches his head, bewildered. Beside him, Sakura looks wide-eyed with horror. "But Sasuke still has the Cursed Seal, right? It's not like it's gone or anything. So... so in the best case scenario, uh, wouldn't Sasuke still have to... keep suppressing Orochimaru with his chakra? And if Sasuke runs out of chakra, wouldn't Orochimaru be able to take over?"

Tsunade massages her temples, muttering, "My god, even he's figured it out. Genius Uchiha my ass."

"Yes," She says, looking up again. "I suppose the only good thing about it would be that Sasuke's gained access to some of Orochimaru's abilities."

Naruto snorts. "You couldn't pay me to use Orochimaru's techniques. Why couldn't Sasuke just kill that snake bastard and be done with it?"

"Don't ask me – I was never the brat's teammate," Tsunade grumbles. "That's not the worst part. After absorbing Orochimaru so to speak, Sasuke assembled a team –Team Hebi – comprised of three of Orochimaru's former test subjects. They then proceeded to search for Itachi but Yuurei's done a good job of erasing any tracks Team Hebi might follow. As long as Itachi's with Yuurei, Sasuke won't be able to find him."

"Okay, that's not so bad," Naruto says, glancing around. "I mean even I know Itachi's stronger than Sasuke, and Sasuke can't even find him right now. Not to mention Yuurei-san is so gonna kick his ass six ways to Sunday if he tries to lay a finger on Itachi."

Tsunade sighs again. "That's not the worst part either. Sasuke was then approached by Uchiha Madara, the true leader of Akatsuki, though I suppose he's finally stepping up now because he's got no more men left. I believe he's only got a few hundred White Zetsu clones scattered around. Anyway, they've formed something of an alliance now."

A long silence prevails. Kakashi lowers his book, a deadpan expression on the visible part of his face. "So basically, he's run from one lunatic to another."

Tsunade nods grimly. "Basically. I'd appreciate it if one of you could explain to me the workings of that boy's mind because I just don't get it."

Naruto kicks at the paperweight on the ground to relieve some of his aggravation. "What's not to get? Sasuke wants power. Orochimaru couldn't give him that, not to mention that creep probably wanted to get him in bed or take over his body or something so Sasuke got rid of him. Of course, he can't even do a proper job of it because he wants Orochimaru's power. And then Madara appears and offers Sasuke even more power and Sasuke thinks he can deliver so off he goes to join his mad-as-fuck ancestor. Simple."

There is another long silence.

"That actually makes a lot of sense," Kakashi comments thoughtfully.

"Oh shut up, both of you," Sakura shoots them an irritated look. "Look, the best thing we can do right now is track Sasuke-kun down, put him out of action, tie him up, drag him home, remove the Cursed Seal, tell him the truth about Itachi-san, and let him throw his temper tantrums until he either believes us or one of us gets annoyed and beats it into his head instead."

Naruto blinks at her with more than a little awe. "Sakura-chan, I didn't know you had it in you."

Sakura huffs and crosses her arms. "Hey, we know the truth now. All Sasuke-kun is doing is making an ass out of himself. Everyone who actually matters knows the truth except him. I swear, Madara's probably having a good laugh right about now. Talk about gullible! I mean, I remember Itachi-san from back before the Uchiha Massacre. I only saw him from a distance a few times but he cared about Sasuke-kun. And then Itachi-san ups and kills his entire Clan out of the blue, and Sasuke-kun doesn't even try to find out why? He just takes the word of the guy who just murdered his family at face value and doesn't look any further? How does that even make sense?"

Naruto sweatdrops. "I- I guess he isn't a researcher like you, Sakura-chan. You can tell him all that when we get him back."

Sakura harrumphs and Naruto guesses that she still isn't all that happy about how their last clash with Sasuke went.

"So," Yamato speaks up, looking expectantly at Tsuande. "Do you want us to track Sasuke down and get him back? Again?"

Tsunade sighs a third time. "I'm still not finished. The absolute worst news in this gigantic clusterfuck is the fact that Sasuke and his team have made a move on one of Kumogakure's Jinchuuriki."

Tsunade pins them all with a hard stare as she slaps a hand on Yuurei's missive. "Killer B, the Jinchuuriki that Madara sent Team Hebi to kidnap, is missing right now, and not only is the man the container of the Hachibi, he's also the adopted brother of the Raikage. Do you understand what this means?! We haven't labelled Sasuke a missing-nin. Because Sasuke attacked and presumably abducted B, Konoha's just as good as started a war against Kumo!"

Naruto gapes. The hell is Sasuke thinking? Konoha has just rebuilt itself from Nagato's invasion! Then again, the teme would hardly care about that. "Well- Are they sure it was Sasuke who did it?"

Tsunade shoots to her feet at last, glaring furiously at all of them. "That little shit had the balls to do it in broad daylight! He was seen leaving by several eyewitnesses! The Raikage's sending a team over here for information on Sasuke right now!"

Tsunade takes a deep breath and sits back down. "So – options. Let me hear them. Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi – you three know him best."

"We find Sasuke before anyone else does," Naruto says immediately. "That B guy's just been kidnapped, right? So we'll go save him and kick Sasuke's ass while we're at it."

"It's not that simple, Naruto," Kakashi admonishes, book nowhere in sight as his visible eye grows sombre. "This is serious. A relative, even if not by blood, of the Raikage has been taken, and a Jinchuuriki to boot. The Raikage won't let that go."

Naruto frowns, chewing on his lip. "Maybe I can convince him to pardon Sasuke-"

"That's naive!" Tsunade cuts him off harshly, and Naruto flinches a little, especially since she's unknowingly echoed Yuurei's words from all those years ago. "Sasuke is a criminal, nothing more, nothing less, and the sooner you accept it, the better. The fact that he isn't labelled a missing-nin doesn't change that. How would you deal with criminals who attack and take your family, Naruto? Would you just let them go with a friendly don't-do-it-again pat on the back?"

Naruto flushes and clenches his hands. "Sasuke's still my friend-"

"And B is the Raikage's brother!" Tsunade snaps. "What's your point, Naruto? There's no one across the elemental countries who isn't important to someone else."

"I know that!" Naruto growls back. "And I understand why the Raikage would want to hunt down Sasuke – Hell, I'd do the same thing in his place! – but it's the same reason I want to find Sasuke first! No matter what he's done, I can't just hand him over!"

Tsunade pinches the bridge of her nose before eyeing Naruto with grave eyes. "You stubborn little snot! Konoha can't afford to go to war with Kumo! Especially since we just got through an invasion!"

"The way I see it," For the first time since the meeting started, Sai steps forward, glancing between Naruto and the Hokage. "The simplest solution to make sure any backlash to Konoha would be minimal is to label Uchiha Sasuke a missing-nin at once and order his immediate capture."

Naruto rounds on his teammate with a wounded expression. "Sai!"

Sai continues blithely, overriding any further words Naruto is about to say. "One of the national laws shared by all five hidden villages is that any missing-nin captured by said missing-nin's former village is to be dealt with by that village, regardless of what they have done to another. So long as Uchiha Sasuke is not captured by any other parties involved, we would, legally, have full rights to deal with him as we please, and no one can do anything against it. So then, Hokage-sama, you could send your own teams out to search for Uchiha Sasuke and..."

"-and another delegation to Kumo to appease the Raikage," Kakashi picks up. "Though I have a feeling that there won't be much appeasing involved. More... buying time."

"So that we'll find Sasuke before Kumo does," Yamato finishes, and the man looks to be seriously mulling over the idea. Naruto beams at all of them proudly.

Tsunade snorts. "Naruto's finally corrupted the lot of you, hasn't he? Sakura? What do you think?"

"It's a good plan," Sakura looks a bit sheepish at the raised eyebrow that her mentor directed at her. "Best one so far. What else are we going to do?"

Tsunade sighs deeply for a final time, leaning back in her chair. "Alright, fine. But I'm not risking a fallout with the Raikage because Idiot One over there couldn't keep his temper in check and ends up starting a grudge match in Kumo or something; all of you will be going after Sasuke. I'll send someone else to do the appeasing."

Naruto whoops loudly because this is the first time in a long while since Tsunade's given them permission to go after Sasuke directly.

"Wait, wait," Yamato cuts in. "We don't have any leads; how are we going to find them?"

Tsunade smirked a little at this. "Oh this is the fun part; I have no doubt you'll be happy with this mission, especially you, Naruto. Yuurei sent word that he and his team will be stopping in Shimogakure in three days. They've been tracking down some Zetsu clones causing havoc in that area. If the lot of you hurry, you can join up with them there. And since Sasuke is hunting Itachi, I have no doubt that you'll meet up with the brat sooner or later."

Naruto is grinning so widely that it feels like his face will split in two. They have official permission to find and bring Sasuke home, and now they get to work together with Yuurei; at this rate, Naruto may just have to cut back on the old hag comments.

XLI.

Team Seven doesn't end up getting to go by themselves though; it would be too suspicious for Sasuke's old team to be the only ones dispatched to capture him, so Team Gai is once again shuffled alongside them for the retrieval mission.

Needless to say, most of the trip to Frost is very youthful.

And really irritating.

"Sakura-san! Please be my girlfriend! I vow to protect you with my life!"

Naruto can stand a lot of things; he likes to think that while he can have a short temper and Sasuke can rile him up like no one else, he's also pretty easy to get along with and he doesn't get truly angry very often.

However, this – Naruto takes exception to.

"Shut up, you stupid Fuzzy-Brows!" Naruto bellows, warding off another of Lee's attempts at approaching Sakura. "You can't proposition my teammate in front of me! Heck, you can't proposition my teammate any other time either! Back off!"

This just gets Lee even more pumped up, and that's saying something. "Defending your teammate, Naruto-kun? That is very youthful indeed! Yosh! I challenge you to a fight for the opportunity to take Sakura-san on a date!"

"Hell no!" Naruto growls, scowling darkly at the green-clad Chuunin bounding up and down with every Shunshin. And people say Naruto's hyperactive. "She ain't interested- ow!"

"I can answer for myself, Naruto!" Sakura snaps from beside him after whacking him upside the head. And then, strangely enough, she quirks a smile at him. "But that's sweet of you even though it's unnecessary."

She turns to Lee with an apologetic look. "Sorry, Lee-kun; I'm not looking for a boyfriend right now."

Lee's face falls for a fraction of a second before he brightens again in a disturbingly bipolar manner. "I understand, Sakura-san! You would want to use this time of your youth to train and become even stronger! Do not worry! I, Rock Lee, swear to wait for you until you are ready! My flames of youth will only grow from such perseverance and dedication!"

Naruto facepalms as Sakura sighs and everyone else sweatdrops. Except Gai of course; the man just beams proudly at his protégé and the two are off crying about something or other before any of them could blink. A sunset pops up behind them and waves appear out of absolutely nowhere, splashing high around the two taijutsu specialists as they sob into each other's arms.

"Are they suffering from a mental illness?" Sai asks, sounding honestly curious. "How have they been cleared for active duty?"

Tenten snorts with laughter and Neji closes his eyes like he wants to be anywhere but here.

"Yes, yes they are," Kakashi chimes in, looking so serious that even Naruto almost believes him.

"No, they aren't, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura shoots him a reprimanding look that she doesn't really mean if the twitch of her lips is anything to go by. Yamato just looks on with long-suffering amusement. "They've always been like that, Sai. Don't mind it."

Naruto grins at the slightly bewildered cast on Sai's face; it's a far sight better than the empty blankness that Sai had worn like a second skin back when they had first met.

He opens his mouth to quip something of his own, just to see if he can make one of those really, really, really rare genuine smiles appear on his newest teammate's face, but he doesn't even get one word into the open before all the air feels like it's been ripped out of his lungs and agony explodes in his chest like a sledgehammer to the sternum.

Naruto trips in the middle of Shunshining from one branch to the next and he's plummeting to the ground before he even realizes he's falling. Somewhere above him, Sakura shouts his name, alarm clear in every syllable, and somewhere to his left, Lee and Gai abruptly shut up.

He's only vaguely aware of this though, and just as he's sure he's going to hit the ground headfirst (he's already gasping in pain; the impact isn't going to hurt much in comparison), someone collides with him and strong arms wrap around his shoulders and hook under his knees, narrowly saving him from a close-up-and-personal introduction with the forest floor.

"Naruto," It's the subtle urgency in Kakashi's typically languid drawl that prompts Naruto to peel back his eyelids blearily, and even then it takes him a moment or two to realize that it is the Copy-nin who has reacted fast enough to catch him.

And then Sakura is there in a flurry of pink, and she's ordering Kakashi to set Naruto on the ground – gently; cushion his head too – and her soothing chakra is suddenly washing over him as she scans his vitals and does other medic-y things that will probably make Naruto's head spin if someone tries to explain it to him.

"I'm fine," Naruto mumbles, and then says it again louder, struggling to sit up. Neji and Tenten are hovering on the right, Sai and Yamato linger at the corner of his eye, and Lee and Gai are wide-eyed with concern.

Naruto allows himself a moment to marvel at all the people who now care about him, troubled just because he took a tumble.

"No you're not, Naruto!" Sakura barks at him, a chakra-infused hand to his chest keeping him down. "People who are fine don't fall out of the air for no reason! Now lie down and tell me where it hurts!"

"Nowhere," Naruto insists, and he's telling the truth, because as quickly as it has come, the pain is already receding. "My chest hurt for a moment but I don't feel anything anymore."

Sakura frowns, worry evident in the crease of her brow as her hands drift up to his chest area. "Your heart, you mean?"

Naruto is about to nod, but he hesitates as he thinks back. No, it wasn't his heart. It was...

"I don't know," Naruto scratches his head as he gingerly pats his torso. "I don't think it was my heart. It was..."

Deeper than that, Naruto thinks, but he has no idea how that would make sense, so he settles lamely on, "It was like someone kicked me in the chest. It just took me by surprise."

Sakura's frown only deepens as she finishes her scan. "Well nothing feels wrong. Maybe it's... the Kyuubi?"

She glances uncertainly at Kakashi then because her expertise doesn't extend to the fox. Kakashi only shakes his head and looks at Naruto. "Naruto? I think you'd know best. Did you feel the seal acting up?"

"No," Naruto says instantly because he hadn't felt the Kyuubi so much as shift. "It wasn't the fox. It didn't feel like-"

He stops abruptly because, in a leap of impossible instinct, he suddenly just knows, and it fills his entire being with dread.

He sits up so fast that he almost cracks heads with Sakura, but he doesn't even waste time apologizing as he twists around and stares ahead, as if he could cancel out all the miles between him and his mentor if he looks hard enough.

"Naruto, what-" Sakura starts, but Naruto is already scrambling to his feet.

"Something's wrong with Yuurei-san!" Naruto all but spits out in increasing anxiety, and he doesn't know how he knows; just that he does, and he's borderline panicking because the wrongness of it all feels different this time. It isn't the restless uneasiness he felt back when he was thirteen and Yuurei disappeared for four months, nor is it the near-overwhelming terror he felt when Yuurei was in the emergency room fighting for his life.

It is far worse because it almost feels like Yuurei is vanishing.

And it doesn't make any sense whatsoever but Naruto doesn't care; he has to go.

"Naruto!" Sakura yells after him as he takes off for the trees again, bolting through the foliage as fast as his legs could carry him, fear that doesn't make sense in the least bolstering him forward.

He barely hears his friends darting after him, and he ignores their calls to wait.

He doesn't know how or why; he just knows that he has to get to Yuurei.

XLII.

They don't even make it to Shimogakure.

As Naruto has always been able to do (and as everyone else has never been able to do), he tracks down Yuurei in record time.

Their group hurtles through the rest of Hot Water without pause (it's lucky that particular country is so small), and even in the heavy sleet of Frost's naturally cold weather, Naruto hones in on the chakra signature that, now that he thinks about it, is always pulsing soothingly at the edge of his senses.

"You sure we're going the right way, Naruto?" Tenten calls out, panting as they dash above the knee-high snow. "Shimogakure is that way!"

"Yuurei-san's not in Shimogakure," He replies tersely, eyes focused straight ahead as he squints through the heavy blizzard. It's ridiculous how different the weather is compared to the cool forested area they just travelled through mere hours ago.

"I sense Jiraiya-sama," Kakashi interjects from Naruto's right. "And the others. It's faint but they're there."

Within a minute, they all catch sight of an outcrop of rocks, and as they circle around, they manage to catch a glimpse of an opening leading into a cave.

They all barrel forward, and Naruto, being in front of everyone else, steps within three feet of the entrance and almost gets skewered by a kunai to the face.

He yelps and slides under it just in time, and when he looks up, he finds Itachi looming over him, expression as poker-faced as ever but red eyes wilder than Naruto has ever seen them (which, granted, still isn't much and could be wholly contributed to the fact that his Sharingan is activated, but this is Itachi, enough said).

Itachi stows his kunai away the moment he recognizes them, and Naruto figures that maybe they should've flared their chakra signatures first, but the elder Uchiha is already extending a hand to help him up (and isn't that just mind-boggling?), inclining his head in silent apology.

And then his gaze shifts to Sakura, intent enough to make her stiffen.

"Haruno-san, you are a medic?" It is less a question and more a statement as he gestures for them to follow him inside, never mincing his words. "Rei-san has fallen ill; we would appreciate your assistance in healing him."

Or rather, as Naruto and probably everyone else can hear, Sakura better heal him or heads would roll. None of them miss the surreptitious note of distressed tension underlying the usually unflappable Uchiha's voice, which would probably be equivalent to full-blown hysteria in anyone else.

It only serves to heighten Naruto's apprehension even more.

Sakura is kind enough to pretend she doesn't notice it though, and she only nods and hurries forward as they reach the inner cavern.

"Finally," Hidan gripes as soon as he sees them, Kisame scowling from beside him. "What the fuck did you heathens do, fall asleep on the way here?"

That isn't really fair, seeing as they were planning to meet up in Shimogakure and not in the middle of nowhere, nor were they told that Yuurei has fallen sick, but nobody cares enough to pick a fight with Hidan over it when they catch sight of Yuurei lying curled up in a pile of blankets next to Jiraiya, shivering even under so many layers.

Naruto rushes forward, skidding to his knees by Yuurei's head as Sakura drops down on the older blond's free side.

"What happened?" Sakura demands, authority powering her voice as her hands tug away the blankets.

Itachi responds swiftly, answers clipped and succinct as if he was delivering an urgent report to the Hokage. "We were fighting several dozen Zetsu clones nine and a half hours ago. None of us were injured. An hour after that, Rei-san collapsed without cause, and he has been unconscious ever since. His temperature has steadily dropped until five hours ago. He has not gotten better, but he has not worsened either. He has no fever, we have checked for poison and found none, and he did not acquire so much as a scratch in our most recent battle."

Sakura pauses, hands glowing green even as her gaze flicks up to study Naruto. "Five hours? Naruto, you collapsed five hours ago."

"I didn't collapse," Naruto protests, distractedly sullen as he clumsily places a hand against Yuurei's forehead.

He doesn't expect what happens next.

The pain comes back like he has just run headlong into a brick wall, except this time, Naruto can feel the seal locking the Kyuubi away shift and unravel, but he doesn't even have time to call out a warning before the world abruptly goes black.

XLIII.

When Naruto opens his eyes again, his surroundings are glowing soft white, and for a few seconds, when he spots the man standing in front of him, he thinks it's Yuurei.

"Yuurei-san?" He clambers to his feet, squinting as his eyes adjust.

The man shakes his head, a hint of a smile tilting his lips. "Not quite."

Naruto blinks, eyesight clearing, and he realizes that this man is blond-haired and blue-eyed but he also has paler skin than Yuurei, slightly shorter hair, and is just a little slimmer, not to mention he's wearing a Konoha headband.

It takes him another heartbeat to realize that this is the Yondaime, and another heartbeat after that to connect that to Namikaze Minato, his father.

More specifically – his father.

"Uh..." Naruto flounders for a moment. "Tou...-chan?"

The Yondaime – his dad – nods, the smile growing just a bit, very fond and very sad at the same time.

Naruto feels his throat tighten. He doesn't really know what to do at this point. He's had Yuurei ruffle his hair and pull him into hugs several times and tuck him into bed when he was younger so he knows, to an extent, affection from a parental or older brother figure, but this is his dad whom he's never met, and he doesn't know how to act around him.

So he wracks his head and snatches up the most obvious topic. "So where am I? And where's Yuurei-san?"

His father shifts in place and looks a little disappointed but replies easily enough. "We're in your subconscious. When you touched... Yuurei just now, the Kyuubi instantly reacted, and the seal was set off. I designed it to allow an imprint of myself to appear in the event that the seal was about to break. It was a failsafe meant to protect... well, you."

Naruto swallows hard and tries to work out the conflicting emotions inside him. It isn't too hard because Yuurei sat him down a long time ago – shortly after the Yondaime was confirmed to be his father – and talked him through all the resentment and bitterness that Naruto had felt towards his own dad for sealing the Kyuubi inside him.

Yuurei's always been there for him since Naruto was twelve, come to think of it; it hasn't really sunk in until now when he's finally faced with one of the two people who should've been there to protect him and teach him and love him throughout his childhood.

"I'm sorry," His father interrupts his thoughts, and Naruto's head jerks back up to find the Yondaime watching him with sombre eyes. There's a million apologies in those eyes too, and suddenly, Naruto doesn't want to hear them; he doesn't have to because he's already forgiven all the ones that matter, and he doesn't want what little time they have to be spent on regrets.

So even if he still feels a touch of hurt and melancholy, Naruto still manages to plaster a genuine grin on his face as he waves a dismissive hand in the air. "Don't worry about it; I understand. Yuurei-san explained things to me a long time ago, and he let me spar against him all I wanted when I was pissed at first."

His father looks taken aback by the abrupt change in mood, but the fondness returns and Naruto secretly basks in it.

"So where is he anyway?" Naruto prompts before things can get sappy and awkward. "Yuurei-san I mean. And I've touched him before and nothing happened then; why did the Kyuubi react this time?"

His dad hesitates before shaking his head. "I'm afraid I can't answer that; I'm not entirely certain of all the details myself, and it's not something for me to tell anyway. Yuurei will tell you when he feels that the time is right. The touching thing shouldn't be a problem again though. Most likely."

Naruto scratches his head but doesn't push. It sounds like one of those things that Yuurei promises he will eventually reveal but hasn't yet, and if it's Yuurei's secret, then Naruto understands his dad's reticence.

"But where is he?" Naruto asks a third time. "Or can he not come into my subconscious even though he was probably affected by the Kyuubi or whatever?"

His father looks thoughtful as he glances around. "No, he should be here, not to mention the Kyuubi as well. I was expecting interruptions from the fox. I assume Yuurei is on his way though."

Naruto peers curiously up at the older blond. "Who is he anyway? Yuurei-san never gives me a straight answer. Is he your brother? Your cousin? Your nephew?"

His dad stills then, and something a lot like grief and helpless rage crosses his face, bottomless and heart-wrenching, and it sends a chill down Naruto's spine. "Tou-chan?"

The Yondaime stirs and summons another smile, but this one doesn't quite reach his eyes. "No, none of those, Naruto. He is a Namikaze though, just as much as you are."

There is something strange in the way his father says that, but Naruto is sufficiently distracted when a golden light flashes on his left several feet away, shining for a brief moment before fading away and revealing Naruto's mentor.

"Yuurei-san!" Naruto beams and flocks over to the man's side because it has been a damn long time (well, not really; it's just been a little over three months, but still). "Are you okay? Why did you collapse? Everyone's worried! Itachi almost stabbed me before he realized who I was! I swear, that guy thinks he's your personal bodyguard or something!"

A hand on his head shuts him up, and Naruto throws a long-suffering look at his mentor when the man proceeds to ruffle his hair. Jeez, it's a little embarrassing too, what with his dad being right there.

"Itachi can be somewhat overprotective," Yuurei says mildly, features looking a little drained but overall still the same. "You've seen as much from his rather unhealthy obsessive streak with Sasuke."

Naruto makes a face. Oh yeah, Itachi killed his entire clan for Sasuke.

He shakes his head and glances back at where his father is standing, watching them with an unreadable gaze.

"Oh, Yuurei-san, you know this is my old man," Naruto knows Yuurei already knows this but he still takes some pleasure in being able to introduce his dad as his dad. He tugs his mentor over, who seems just shy of reluctant as he pads after Naruto.

There's a long moment of stilted silence, and just when Naruto is beginning to think that there's been some bad blood between them in their family history somewhere, Yuurei dips his head courteously and murmurs, "Yondaime-sama."

Even Naruto does a double-take because Yuurei isn't that politely distant with anyone, not even Tsunade who's the Hokage – his mentor always slips up and calls her 'Baa-chan' in the end, and Tsunade's given up changing the moniker as a bad job.

On the other hand, Naruto's father looks pained, and he takes a step forward. It makes Yuurei stiffen.

"Don't be like that," Naruto's dad says quietly, and it's both a command and a plea at the same time.

Yuurei's lips thin. "Well I can hardly call you anything else. ...You saw. I know you did. All my memories."

Naruto has no idea what they're talking about but his dad only nods. "They transferred over when the seal reacted to you. Not all of it, but enough for me to get the general picture."

Yuurei sighs, sounding even more exhausted than he looks as he runs a hand through his hair. "That shouldn't have happened. It should've only gone to the Kyuubi. But my soul isn't..."

He trails off and glances at Naruto, an odd look on his face. "Naruto, when we get out, you should try talking to the Kyuubi. I've had a little chat with him myself; he should be more cooperative now."

Naruto blinks, and then his jaw drops. "Eh? You talked to the Kyuubi? Without it trying to kill you?"

The odd look returns, accompanied by a faint smile. "The Kyuubi would never try to kill me. He couldn't, anyway."

Naruto doesn't know where his mentor's confidence comes from. "That damn fox is always so violent though!"

Yuurei shrugs. "You'd be violent too if you spent your life being transferred from one prison to another."

Naruto's eyes widen at this revelation but Yuurei doesn't give him a chance to ponder on it any further as he pushes him forward.

"Better fix the seal," Yuurei advises, turning back to the Yondaime again. "There's not much time left."

Naruto's father nods, conflicting emotions flitting like quicksilver across his face, but he concentrates on Naruto once more and works on his seal instead.

"I'm proud of you, Naruto," His dad says when he straightens. A gentle hand drops on his head, an echo of Yuurei's gesture earlier. "Everything you've endured, everything you've done to protect your loved ones, everything you've achieved – neither I nor your mother could ask for a better son."

A lump rises in Naruto's throat again, and he isn't quite sure who steps forward first but his father's arms are suddenly tight around him and Naruto's hands are clutching at the back of the haori that his dad is wearing.

When Naruto pulls away, he feels the sting of tears in his eyes and he hastily swipes a sleeve over them before sniffing and glancing up at his dad, who's looking just a little bright-eyed himself as he smiles warmly down at Naruto.

Naruto clears his throat (man, this family reunion thing is one emotional embarrassment), and then automatically turns to look for Yuurei. He's unexpectedly struck by how lonely his mentor looks, shoulders slightly slumped and standing by himself off to the side, staring avidly at the ground as if it is the most interesting thing he has ever seen.

"Yuurei-san?" Naruto calls out, hoping to erase the expanse that suddenly seems to yawn wide between them.

His mentor stirs and glances up, gaze carefully impassive. "Done? We should get go-"

Yuurei stops abruptly, breath hitching and his entire frame going rigid because Naruto's dad is suddenly standing in front of him, barely half a foot separating them, and before Yuurei can even think about backing away, the Yondaime has reached out, snaked an arm around Naruto's mentor, and guided him forward with a firm hand splayed against his back, pressing the younger of the two against him in a fierce, almost desperate hug.

Standing beside each other, Naruto realizes that Yuurei stands maybe an inch and a half taller than the Yondaime, and while he's also slightly broader in the shoulders, Yuurei still somehow looks smaller, hunched up and stiff with his arms frozen at his side as Naruto's father wraps his other arm around Yuurei's lower back and tightens the one-sided embrace as if he's trying to convey every emotion he is feeling with that one gesture.

Naruto watches, and confusingly enough, unbidden tears well up in his eyes. He can't explain why he feels so miserable all of a sudden, but he chalks it up to the fact that Yuurei doesn't seem to know how to return the affection (His mentor's always been like that; Yuurei is good at caring about people but Naruto's noticed that he sucks at receiving it. Naruto's hugs for Yuurei are always preceded by hesitant flailing before the man relaxes enough to return them.).

Naruto's father says something to Yuurei, voice pitched too low for Naruto to hear, but whatever it is cuts the invisible strings holding Yuurei back, and in the next second, his mentor all but sags against the Yondaime, his forehead falling forward to rest against the older blond's shoulder.

Naruto's dad only holds him closer, one hand rising to run through Yuurei's yellow locks like he's a child needing comfort.

Naruto says nothing, staying as still and silent as he could manage and barely even breathing because this is the very first time in all the years he's known Yuurei that he's seen his mentor break down.

Not the weeping sort of breakdown that Sakura used to have (and still does on occasion if he is honest, but he's never gonna say that out loud if he doesn't want to be beheaded or smashed into the ground or something equally suicidal), but the air around them feels just as intense.

Naruto's father holds Yuurei like he's something precious and fragile and near-shattering, and Yuurei just lets him, soaking up all the love that the Yondaime is offering like it's the only thing that'll keep him going.

But when they finally pull back from each other, Yuurei slips seamlessly back into the man that Naruto has always known – strong, calm, and emotionally subdued – and Naruto hates it because for the first time, this persona doesn't look like it fits his mentor.

Naruto doesn't have any time to remark on it though because the world trembles around them and the light grows increasingly bright.

"I love you," Naruto's father says almost urgently, and he looks at Naruto first, quiet pride in his expression, and despite the situation, Naruto doesn't have to try as he grins back openly.

The Yondaime begins to lose colour, but he manages to stare hard at Naruto once more as if to memorize his features one last time before shifting his attention over to Yuurei and taking him in with an almost hungry gaze.

"I love you," Naruto's father repeats, focus darting between them. "Both of you."

And then the light becomes blinding and Naruto is forced to close his eyes as it washes over them like a breaking wave.

XLIV.

Naruto wakes with a gasp, shooting up into a sitting position and then reeling back in pain when his head smacks against Sakura's, who swears a litany of curses that Naruto doesn't know where she learned from.

"Naruto!" Sakura snaps, but it isn't to yell at him for inadvertently hitting her. "Are you alright? What happened? Your seal flared up but it reformed again almost instantly-"

"I met my dad," Naruto croaks out, and he doesn't need a mirror to know how happy he looks. "He worked an imprint of himself into the design so that he'd appear just in case the seal was ever about to break. He fixed it."

Kakashi is very still in his crouched position beside him, and Jiraiya closes his eyes for a moment before opening them again and quirking a slight smile.

"Sounds like Minato," The Sannin says, nostalgia underlying his words. "Always prepared."

"I hate to interrupt this sob story," Hidan butts in impatiently, sounding anything but sorry. "But if the midget's fine, can we please concentrate on the fucking comatose guy, seriously?"

Naruto admits that the Jashinist has a point so he refrains from shooting a dirty look at the man as he cranes his head around to look at Yuurei.

Overall, his mentor looks a lot better. The man seems to be just sleeping now, and colour has rushed back into his features.

"I've checked his vitals," Sakura reports, frowning in puzzlement. "He's fine now. But I don't understand why he reacted to the Kyuubi when you touched him, Naruto."

Naruto rubs the back of his head as he scrambles for a plausible reason. "I'm not sure myself; Tou-chan says it shouldn't be a problem again though. Maybe it's a Namikaze thing?"

Sakura looks dubious, as does everyone else in the cave, but Jiraiya abruptly takes on a calculating expression as he glances between Naruto and Yuurei. He doesn't say anything though, busying himself with tucking the blankets closer around Yuurei's form instead.

Nobody presses further into the mystery because Naruto is honestly as clueless as the rest of them, so the subject is dropped, though, when Kisame prompts her, Sakura runs another checkup on Yuurei just in case.

"Well, if he's alright," Yamato speaks up for the first time since they arrived. "We should probably get some rest ourselves. We do have a mission to carry out."

There's a murmur of agreement, but as Naruto wraps a blanket around himself and huddles against Yuurei's side just in case something else happens to the man, he notices Itachi taking a seat near the cave entrance, no intent to sleep anywhere in his alert frame.

Surprisingly, Jiraiya does the same, settling himself opposite Itachi as the flickering light of the campfire throws dancing shadows over both of them.

It makes even Naruto feel safe though, and between one breath and the next, he falls asleep, and he dreams.

He dreams of a Konoha with his father muddling through paperwork when Naruto pops in from the window to visit him. He dreams of his mother welcoming him home when he returns from a mission. He dreams of his godfather peeping on the women at the baths and getting beaten up for it. He dreams of Sasuke and Sakura and Kakashi, and even Yamato and Sai, all of them his teammates, all of them beside him as he takes on the world.

And he dreams of a brother in the form of his mentor, eyes bluer and brighter without the haunted shadows that Naruto's never been able to get rid of, a brother who has friends of his own in the village and is that much happier with his life. Yuurei still tousles his hair in greeting when they meet up for spars and ramen (because it's their favourite food), and they argue over who will become Hokage between them, and Yuurei teases him over his rivalry with Sasuke and his cluelessness when it comes to girls, and Naruto retaliates with creative pranks and good-natured insults, and- and-

And when Naruto wakes up in the morning, he isn't surprised to find tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, nor is he surprised to feel the aching happiness mixed with wistful what-could've-been's in his chest.

Kakashi is the only one who sees him crying, but the man just looks at him like he understands, at least a little, and he's decent enough to refrain from commenting on it as he shields Naruto from a yawning Sakura's view until he can pull himself together again.

It's the best dream Naruto has ever had, but at the same time, he hopes he will never have it again. It doesn't do to live in an idealistic world after all, and forget about all the things he already has in real life.

XLV.

Yuurei wakes up about an hour after everyone else does, and Naruto, along with everyone else sans Jiraiya, watches in thorough bemusement at the way Hidan snarks scathing insults at him with an undercurrent of concern while Kisame fusses over the blond in a subtle but creepily mother-hen-ish manner.

Itachi – and there's really only one word for it – hovers. The Uchiha drifts at Yuurei's right elbow, a slight crease in his brow as he all but caters to Yuurei's needs without the blond ever opening his mouth to request anything. Change of clothes, flak jacket, weapons, seals, breakfast – the Sharingan-wielder only stops short of actually rolling up Yuurei's bedding for him, and Naruto would put money down on Itachi doing that too if it isn't for Yuurei's arched eyebrow and exasperated headshake.

Of course, Itachi somehow makes it all look perfectly natural, but there's a subconscious edge of disquiet in his movements, almost as if some part of the Uchiha is worried – Naruto wouldn't go so far as to say afraid – that Yuurei may leave him behind the moment Itachi no longer proves to be of any use.

And it makes Naruto wonder just how much pressure Itachi was once under, pressured by Danzou and the Hokage and his entire clan, loyalties and wants pulled in three different directions and finally having to choose something like massacring his own family just to save the one person he loves most, and then to have that same person dedicate their every waking moment to murdering him in return.

And then, after that trauma, infiltrating Akatsuki can't have been a picnic. With his loyalties divided there, Itachi wouldn't want to get too close with his temporary comrades, all of whom he would have to betray eventually to protect a village who thought him a traitor.

(And on hindsight, that convoluted sense of absolute loyalty is exceedingly terrifying.)

If not for Yuurei coming along and throwing everything upside-down, dragging Itachi under his wing and giving the Uchiha someplace to belong...

Well, Naruto just thinks that the genius has spent a disgustingly long time alone. Hell, if he's reading everything correctly, then Itachi once planned for Sasuke to kill him, and the elder Uchiha would've probably died alone without a single soul beside him to care about his passing.

No fucking wonder Itachi's so attached to Yuurei.

So when Sai makes a passing, tactless remark about servants and maid outfits (because the moron is just that socially inept), Naruto puts him in a friendly chokehold and makes everyone laugh so that their attention is redirected away from Itachi.

It's the least he can do, and Yuurei quirks a small, grateful smile in his direction afterwards, which Naruto just returns with a grin.

Nobody ever said he can't learn tact when he needs to.

XLVI.

Naruto is sulking.

Why?

Because his mentor is sparring against someone else, and not any someone else either; he's sparring against Lee.

Naruto must've pissed somebody off in a past life, because clearly, someone up there hates him.

He has nothing against Lee, really, or Gai for that matter; they're good people, good allies, and good friends. He can even stand the green spandex so long as they don't try to get him to wear it.

But Yuurei's never trained with anyone other than Naruto before, and watching it happen is just a little... annoying.

Especially when Yuurei's ordered him to meditate.

Meditate. Seriously.

They've travelled away from Frost, only stopping a few times until they reached the lush forests near Takigakure. All of them figure that it would be best to have any confrontations with Sasuke well away from Lightning, not to mention Sakura has insisted on leaving such a cold country because she's still worried about Yuurei having a relapse.

They've set up camp in a cavern under a waterfall, but the sun is shining and the surrounding clearing is perfect for lazing around and training.

And that's when Lee decides that it would be a good idea to encroach on Naruto's territory.

"I have heard of your utter youthfulness from Naruto-kun! Please spar with me, Yuurei-san!"

Naruto makes a face at the very thought. To make matters worse, Yuurei actually accepted, and now Lee looks to be having the time of his life as Yuurei effortlessly keeps up with the taijutsu specialist, strong enough to push Lee to his limits but watered down so that the Chuunin doesn't get his ass kicked in seconds.

And as luck would have it, everyone else is watching with keen interest; even Neji looks like he wants to jump in and replace Lee in the spar.

"Would you concentrate, you damn brat? I don't have all day."

Oh yeah, and there was that too.

"Oh shut up!" Naruto screws his eyes shut and slips back into the seal where the Kyuubi is confined behind bars. "I don't get why you're suddenly willing to help me. What if this is a trick?"

"You think I'd waste time planning something as complicatedly elaborate as that?"The Kyuubi scoffs, eyes gleaming in the darkness. "It would probably fly right over your head anyway. Besides, I'm not asking you to unlock anything just yet; you can't handle my power in the first place. But I can lend you more of my chakra, and the sooner you learn to control that, the stronger you'll get."

"But why?" Naruto demands. "Why now? What did Yuurei-san say to you?"

The fox shifts and a soft snort echoes in the prison. "He didn't say anything to me; not much anyway. He dumped a crapload of memories into my head, not to mention a migraine to boot. When you do finally get around to letting me out, remind me to step on him, will you?"

"What?! No!" Naruto bristles defensively, but there is less heat in his voice than there should be because the Kyuubi doesn't sound particularly angry or offended, just sort of... huffy.

"To both!" He tacks on for good measure. "I'm not letting you out!"

The Kyuubi just chuckles and settles down again. "Oh, you'll change your mind soon enough. Don't worry, brat; I'm not looking to take over anymore. You'll grow up to be a very... intriguing human. It will be interesting to see the differences."

And Naruto is officially lost, but he doesn't bother nagging the fox for answers because he's already tried that and the Kyuubi has refused to give him a straight one. The damn fox is a lot like Yuurei in that.

"Now come on!" The Kyuubi barks, flicking an irritated ear in Naruto's direction. "Channel my chakra already; I want to get back to my nap before I die of old age or something."

As they dissolve into arguments once more, Naruto realizes that the damn fox has a really infuriating penchant for sarcasm.

Just his luck.

XLVII.

When Naruto finally does get around to working with the Kyuubi instead of taking turns biting each other's heads off, it takes him several hours inside the seal as he outwardly meditates, allowing the red chakra to envelope his body as he works at keeping it under his control.

By the time he opens his eyes, night has fallen, and he is so hungry he could eat a bear.

Fortunately, he can smell rabbit cooking over a campfire, and his friends make room for him when they see that he's finished meditating at last.

Naruto's halfway through wolfing down his dinner before he realizes that Lee and Neji are conked out on the side, both out cold and looking tired even when asleep.

"What the heck happened to them?" Naruto asks after swallowing a large mouthful.

Tenten releases a resigned sigh. "Those two idiots got into a huge competition when Yuurei-san handed Lee's ass back to him. Lee said Neji couldn't get five hits in against Yuurei-san and it just descended into chaos from there. They ended up working themselves to exhaustion."

She jabs a finger over her shoulder to where Yuurei and Itachi are standing on one of the boulders in the lake, any words they are sharing lost under the roar of the waterfall. "And Yuurei-san barely worked up a sweat. Your teacher's hellishly strong, Naruto."

Naruto grins and gives her a thumbs-up. "Of course! He's my teacher after all! He's the best!"

Jiraiya whacks him over the head. "And what do you call me? I don't see you defending my skills so ardently."

Naruto gives him the look this deserves. "You're a pervert; you don't count."

Jiraiya pulls himself up and strikes a ridiculous pose. "I'm not a pervert! I'm a super per- ow!"

Splash!

Naruto chokes on a mouthful of water, sputtering with laughter as Yuurei appears in a flash of Hiraishin and promptly kicks Jiraiya into the lake. Itachi materializes a moment later with Shunshin and they both sit down in the newly-vacated spot as Naruto slides over between snickers to accommodate them.

Across from them, Gai grins, looking highly entertained, and Tenten and Sakura hide giggles behind their rice bowls. Beside Naruto, Sai and Yamato both smile, the former's faker than the latter's but there was amusement in both their eyes. Kakashi, sprawled out between Gai and Yamato, glance up from his Icha Icha with an eye-smile of his own, and the crinkle at the corner of his eye told Naruto that it is a genuine expression. On Itachi's other side, Kisame snorts at Jiraiya's misfortune while Hidan outright cackles, taking obvious delight in the Sannin's soaked, grumpy appearance as the man surfaces, white hair matted to his skull.

Naruto can get used to this.

"Yuurei!" Jiraiya hollers as he clambers out of the water and flops back onto dry land. "You brat! I swear you're worse than Naruto!"

Yuurei rolls his eyes. "Don't be a baby; it's just a little water."

Jiraiya glowers at him behind wet bangs. "You're not the one soaked to the bone."

Yuurei's mouth twitches like he wants to laugh, but as always, the blond suppresses it. Naruto wonders if it's become second nature, which is kinda sad.

Instead, his mentor curls his hands into a seal and then claps them together. At first, nothing happens, but then Naruto feels the wind shift, the currents doing an about-face as they combine with Yuurei's chakra and gambol over to a stunned-looking Jiraiya, winding around the Sannin until the man is as dry as he was before Yuurei dumped him into the lake.

Yuurei's chakra recedes and the wind returns to its natural cool evening breeze.

Naruto isn't the only one who has to scrape his jaw off the ground. The only ones who don't seem surprised are the former Akatsuki members; Itachi, Kisame, and Hidan only look highly amused at their expense.

"We should get an early night's sleep," Yuurei remarks lightly as he stands, and there's a rare light of boyish mischief in his eyes when he glances at the fading stupefied looks around him, something that Naruto has always preferred over the typically neutral gaze.

"Naruto," Yuurei glances down at him, and Naruto instinctively straightens. "Tomorrow, after breakfast, I'd like to assess you."

Naruto does a double-take. "Eh? Assess me?"

Yuurei nods, and the humour from before ebbs. "It's been a while since we've properly sparred. I'll put up seals around this clearing so that we can go all-out without disturbing the other areas and drawing attention. You talked to the Kyuubi?"

Naruto quickly nods, excitement already spiking inside him. He hasn't fought Yuurei in forever, not since they all returned from his training trip with Jiraiya.

"Good," Yuurei tilts his head and his gaze grows more intense. "You'll need it. Don't pull any stops tomorrow. Throw everything you have at me."

Naruto's eyes widen. "Even my Rasenshuriken? Even the Kyuubi's chakra? Even Sage Mode?"

"Everything," Yuurei repeats, and his eyes gleam like blue fire bathed in moonlight. "Don't worry, Naruto. You're still ten years too early to even think about defeating me."

Naruto leaps to his feet and grins. "Hah! Fine! And when I kick your ass tomorrow, you'll have to take back every word!"

It's a bluff; they both know it, but Naruto gets fired up at challenges like this, and Yuurei only smiles back, a hint of satisfaction in his features.

Tomorrow's fight will be epic.

XLVIII.

They have an audience.

Of course they do; Naruto would be surprised if they don't, but Itachi, Kisame, and Hidan are already sitting in a nearby tree that has a good view of the clearing, Sai, Sakura, Tenten, Lee, and Neji are all gathered on a giant boulder at the edge of the lake, and Yamato, Kakashi, Gai, and Jiraiya are stationed on another boulder. All are watching them closely and Naruto's still warming up. Even Kakashi's Icha Icha is nowhere to be seen.

Naruto finishes up his stretches as Yuurei shrugs off his flak jacket and hands it over to Itachi before returning to the middle of the clearing.

Inside himself, Naruto feels the fox shift and its voice rumbles in his head. "You better not lose too badly, brat."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, damn fox," Naruto mutters back as he keeps a wary eye on his mentor.

"Ready, Naruto?" Yuurei cocks his head, eyes glinting almost demonically with how focused they suddenly seem. Naruto thinks there's something different about his mentor today, and he's proven right in the next second.

Yuurei raises his hands and forms the same seal as he did last night. "I won't be holding back quite as much as I have been in the past. Stay alert. And do try to dodge."

And then the world explodes.

A funnel of pure wind chakra rips its way across the clearing straight towards Naruto, and Naruto barely manages to dive out of the way with a rather unmanly shriek before the attack screams past him in a howling torrent of air, leaving behind a deep furrow in the ground like some giant monster has dragged a claw through the earth.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" He shouts just in time as Yuurei appears above him in the blink of an eye and plunges downward with a fully-formed Rasengan in hand. Naruto scrambles underground as his clones cover his back, and he winces as he feels all of them being systematically eviscerated in a matter of seconds.

Yuurei wasn't kidding when he said he wouldn't be holding back as much.

Naruto yelps and almost inhales a mouthful of dirt when something wraps around his ankle and forcefully yanks him back out, flinging him into the sky and sending him soaring into the waterfall. He grits his teeth and flicks out several more clones to cushion his back and stop his momentum before hurtling forward again, sprinting around the clearing with his fastest Shunshin as Yuurei dogs him without effort.

"What are you doing, Naruto?" Yuurei calls out almost mockingly as they zoom past the boulder where Yamato, Kakashi, Gai, and Jiraiya are sitting. Yuurei is level with Naruto now though he makes no move to attack. "Are you just going to run?"

Naruto mentally curses because – goddamnit – he can't do anything but run. He's always known that Yuurei has been holding back with him, but if this is his mentor when he's only holding back a little less than before, Naruto truly shudders at just how powerful Yuurei would be when he's not holding back at all.

It's just a little frightening to imagine.

"Stop daydreaming, kid!" Yuurei rebukes sharply, and before Naruto can blink, a kick to his stomach sends him crashing backwards once more, smashing through two trees before he manages to flip himself around and skid to a stop beside the rock that his friends are sitting on, panting for breath as he presses a hand against his stomach.

Ouch, that hurt.

"I'm disappointed," Yuurei remarks from across the clearing, hair and clothes whipping in the air with the force of his manifested wind chakra. "Have you actually gotten worse, Naruto?"

Naruto flinches. Disappointing his mentor is one thing he never wants to do.

"Oi, Naruto!" Sakura yells from above. Naruto glances up briefly and finds her peering down at him with crossed arms and glaring green eyes. "What do you think you're doing?! You're getting your ass kicked! Get with the program! What happened to Konoha's Number One Unpredictable Ninja, huh?!"

"You can do it, Naruto-kun!" Lee gives him a blinding grin. "Your youthfulness has always burned brightly!"

Tenten only gives him a supportive smile while Sai retains a bland expression but holds up a sketch of Naruto being beaten over the head by a monstrous-looking Sakura with 'If You Lose' written above it (it makes Naruto sweatdrop), and Neji gives him a cool onceover but nods almost encouragingly at him, which is basically the equivalent of raucous cheering from anyone else.

Naruto huffs a bit and fights down a flush of happy embarrassment. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. Just watch me!"

He turns back to where Yuurei is waiting. Just watch me.

"Taijuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" And as hundreds of clones flood the clearing and bombard Yuurei all at once, Naruto backs away and hides himself underground again, concentrating his chakra and reaching for Sage Mode as his lookalikes buy him time.

Naruto isn't surprised when he bursts out of the ground, chakra blades in hand, and finds Yuurei calmly dispatching the last of his clones, though judging by the faces of their audience, it was a hell of a sight to watch.

Yuurei doesn't wait for Naruto to attack though. Instead, between one heartbeat and the next, his mentor flashes behind him and lashes out with a kunai.

This time, Naruto is ready for him.

Naruto whirls and brings up one of his chakra blades to meet his mentor's weapon. Metal rings against metal in a scatter of sparks, and then they're both in the air and clashing once more, parrying and thrusting and deflecting in a blur of arms and legs and chakra.

For Naruto, it's exhilarating, because even when they land back on the ground and rush at each other from there, it still feels like he's flying when all he can rely on are his instincts as Yuurei pushes him to his limits and then right past those as well.

"Much better," Yuurei compliments in between blows, and Naruto grins with pride. "Let's take it up another notch then, shall we?"

And before Naruto can reply, Yuurei flips back, vaulting high into the air, and two Rasenshuriken are suddenly blazing in his mentor's hands.

Naruto swears and hops backwards, narrowly dodging the first and taking the second against his arm, suffering a deep gash that would've probably taken his arm off if Naruto hasn't managed to replace himself with a clone halfway through so that it takes the brunt of the assault instead.

Two Rasenshuriken at the same time. Naruto could only manage one, and even that takes time to form!

And if Yuurei is anything in a fight, it's relentless. Naruto doesn't even have time to gather his thoughts before his mentor is bearing down on him again, all intensity and resolve as he slams an elbow into Naruto's chest before following it up with a pivot-kick that tumbles him through some nearby shrubbery.

"Use my chakra, you empty-headed fool!" The Kyuubi bellows. "I hate losing! At the very least, put up a good fight!"

Naruto spits out a mouthful of leaves and then frantically rolls to the side as Yuurei's fist comes down, missing him by half an inch and cracking against the ground instead. The strike doesn't break up the ground like Sakura's punches do but the wind chakra that Yuurei has been unleashing without pause ever since the start of their match tears up the surrounding grass and soil, leaving behind a deep groove in the shape of a whirlwind-like circle.

Ducking away from an uppercut that probably would've broken his jaw, Naruto scuttles away and summons the Kyuubi's chakra. As reluctant as he still is to use it, the damn fox is right – he needs to go all out if he wants to at least put up a good fight.

Crimson chakra snakes out around him in tendrils, and paired with his Sage Mode, Naruto manipulates his wind chakra as well and forms a Rasenshuriken of his own, the four-point Rasengan taking on a reddish tinge as the Kyuubi's chakra bleeds into it as well.

But it's not going to work; Naruto knows this without even needing to turn around. He knows that Yuurei is already charging at him, and his mentor will simply evade Naruto's strongest attack before taking him down too.

And Naruto would like to end this spar with at least one landed blow against Yuurei, thank you very much.

In the fractions of a second as Yuurei rapidly approaches, Naruto's mind races for some sort of trump card, some sort of surprise that may just take his mentor off guard.

There is one, but it's dangerous, and Yuurei will probably bite his head off afterwards, and that's only if Naruto doesn't mess it up bad enough that it critically injures him or worse.

But if he doesn't try now then the battle is over and Naruto will always wonder what-if, and he really, really, really wants to get at least one strike against his mentor. Naruto's never been able to do that before.

So he takes a steadying breath and reaches for one of the special kunai that he has been fiddling with for a while now, ever since Yuurei started to teach him how to make the proper seal, and he lets it fly behind him as he spins around himself to face his mentor.

As expected, Yuurei dodges it easily, a puzzled frown already forming at the seemingly bad throw. The man has a Rasenshuriken of his own, the same as Naruto's except for the fact that it is rotating swiftly with eight points instead of four, and looks about a hundred times stronger.

Naruto runs through the list of pointers Yuurei gave him one last time (concentrate on where you're going, don't let your mind wander, take a deep breath, take a step, just like you're walking), and then-

"Hiraishin no Jutsu!" Naruto shouts, and he only has time to catch Yuurei's widening eyes before he is gone, a funny squeezing feeling around his middle as his body is yanked away. For a nanosecond, Naruto almost panics, his mind filling with ohshitwhatifImessedup before he is clumsily deposited in the middle of the air, freefalling and with his Rasenshuriken still whirling in his right hand.

He is more than a little disoriented but he still has the presence of mind to grit his teeth and twist around, not even waiting to catch sight of Yuurei before he hurls the Rasenshuriken downwards in a blind, all-or-nothing, hit-or-miss, final assault.

The ground detonates with the force of the attack, and Naruto is sent tumbling head over heels through the air from the recoil of wind chakra combined with the Kyuubi's chakra and boosted by his Sage Mode. It feels like the very foundations of the earth shakes, and Naruto's limbs are suddenly too heavy to even try to stop his fall, so it's lucky that he drops down in a still grassy area, crashing to a stop with an only mildly painful thunk as he attempts to shield his eyes from the light and dust and broken bits of debris.

It takes several long minutes for the thunderous noise to die down, and Naruto manages to struggle into a sitting position as he slips out of Sage Mode and the Kyuubi's chakra recedes, growing increasingly anxious by the second when Yuurei doesn't appear.

What if he has actually done some serious damage to his mentor? Yuurei's strong, but the Rasenshuriken was unexpected, and if it hit...

From where he's sitting, Naruto can just make out the former Akatsuki perched in their tree. Even from here, he can see Itachi's Sharingan activated as the Uchiha's eyes narrow against the billowing cloud of dust.

Behind him, his friends and sensei are all squinting into the wreckage as well. Kakashi's Sharingan is uncovered too, which is the only warning Naruto gets – a slight widening of the man's left eye – before a rain of kunai snags his clothing, jerks him clean off the ground, and pins him to the rock at his back.

"Aw, crap," Naruto mutters, squirming futilely against the weapons restraining his movements. He gives up as the last of the dust clears, blinking at the sole figure in the middle of the clearing instead.

Yuurei is on his feet, no sign of near-collapsing anywhere as he idly twirls a kunai in his right hand. His left arm however, from bicep to wrist, looks like someone has put it through a blender. The sleeve is completely shredded, and wet lines of crimson trickle from the numerous messy lacerations running along his arm, staining the man's left hand as blood drips from his fingers.

Naruto is proud and guilty in equal measure. The injury's not critical, and he got a hit, but it does look rather painful.

And then Yuurei begins walking towards him and Naruto gulps. His mentor's face is far too blank to tell what he's thinking.

The clearing remains hushed as Yuurei comes to a stop in front of Naruto. The kunai continues to twirl, its movements almost lazy between his mentor's deft fingers.

"Ah-ha," Naruto manages sheepishly as Yuurei slowly stoops forward so that they are at eye-level. "Um... surprise? Er... A- Are you angry?"

Yuurei stares straight into his eyes, blue gaze narrowing. Naruto braces himself for a verbal lashing.

"...Impressive."

Naruto blinks. Eh? "Eh?"

Yuurei straightens and a faint smile tilts his lips as he absently stows his kunai away. "I'm impressed; I didn't expect that, and there is very little I don't expect nowadays. Well fought, Naruto."

Naruto's jaw drops, and then he breaks out into a wide, shit-eating grin at the rare praise, beaming from ear to ear. "Haha! Yeah, I was pretty cool back there, wasn't I? And I totally pulled that combo move off; it was kickass! And there was-"

"However."

Naruto freezes at the silkily dangerous edge suddenly curling around Yuurei's every word. His mentor's smile is sharp and humourless and just this side of evil.

Oh shit.

"Ow!" Naruto yelps, wanting to clutch at his head where Yuurei has thumped him with his uninjured hand.

"What did I tell you when I first started teaching you the Hiraishin?" Yuurei growls rhetorically, voice above his usual volume but not quite a shout either. "Didn't I warn you about using it before you finished learning it properly? You reckless idiot! You could've lost a limb! Especially since you decided to drag a Rasenshuriken along! You could've been literally ripped in half! And what if I had been an enemy? You wasted all that energy and I could've finished you off by now! Do you have any idea how lucky you are? Are you stupid? Where did you inherit these genes? Do you not use your brain at all? Do you have only air between your ears?!"

Naruto's ears are ringing by the time Yuurei finishes tearing him a new one, which is quite a feat because his mentor never actually yells at him, the man's voice raised only a few notches higher than normal. But Yuurei doesn't scold him much, so when he does, Naruto feels like the lectures actually blister him.

"Jiraiya, get your numskull of a godson down!" Yuurei orders before stalking away in a huff, veering over to where Itachi is already waiting with a medical kit.

Naruto grimaces as Jiraiya lands in front of him with an arched eyebrow, and then groans when the Sannin slaps him upside the head as well.

"Alright, alright, I get it!" Naruto gripes sullenly, scowling harder when he catches his friends hiding grins behind their hands at the dressing down he has received. "I won't do it again until I learn it properly; happy?"

Jiraiya scoffs but he begins yanking out the weaponry still pinning Naruto to the boulder. "Hardly, but I think Yuurei managed to get the message across so I'll skip the whole lecture I was going to dish out. Jeez, your recklessness knows no bounds."

Naruto glowers at him but he doesn't have the energy to hold a grudge because his legs fold under him as soon as his feet touch the ground, and all he wants to do is sleep now that his adrenaline has left his system. He's pretty sure at least two of his ribs are broken too, and he feels like he has bruises all over his body.

Jiraiya scoops him up though (like he's still a little kid), and Sakura sees to his wounds with gentle, proficient hands. Naruto's friends all remark on his prowess, though Sai calls him a human punching bag and Lee vows to become even stronger so that he can surpass Yuurei as well one day.

It's not even lunch yet but Naruto's already nodding off again, exhaustion washing over him and dragging him under.

Just before he falls asleep though, he feels more than sees Yuurei settle down beside him, fingers carding through his hair as a whispered "You've grown a lot, Naruto. I'm proud of you." reaching his ears.

It brings a smile to his face even as darkness sweeps him away.

XLIX.

They spend another day in their makeshift campsite before hitting the road again. The plan is relatively simple – Itachi merely needs to walk through a couple of towns and make sure the residents see him. Rumours travel faster than light after all.

Still, though the plan is simple, Naruto has thought that they would have to prepare, strenuously, for Sasuke's – and whoever else comes with him – imminent arrival.

As it turns out, this is not the case.

"Is this what you people did when you were staking out Orochimaru?" Naruto demands, not knowing whether to flail at the ridiculousness of the situation or facepalm. "Is this seriously how you operate?!"

Three missing-nins and his mentor all glance at each other before turning to him with collective deadpan stares.

"Yeah, pretty much," Kisame confirms, polishing off another stick of dango. "What, you think we've got protocols and regulations or something?"

"We ain't like you Konoha bitches," Hidan informs them with a sneer around his plate of takoyaki. "There's no need for us to prepare ourselves or something to fuck up anyone who wants to screw with us."

Naruto really does flail a bit this time, feeling indignant. "But it's Sasuke!"

"I hate to break this to you," Hidan says with palpable relish as he leans forward to get his point across. "But Sasuke sucks."

Naruto automatically bristles, and beside him, Sakura scowls. Across the table, Itachi gives the immortal as much of the evil eye as expressionless Uchihas ever can. Apparently, the man doesn't like it when people insult his little brother.

Hidan ignores them all as he gestures at himself and the three people around him.

"Any one of us can take down the little runt," The Jashinist says, but, at Itachi's and even Yuurei's arched eyebrows, amends very reluctantly, "Maybe me and Kisame together if he's quick enough to do some funky shit with his Jashin-damned Sharingan. I rather doubt it.

"But this?" He motions at everyone in general, all of them crowded around a table outside the small restaurant they've chosen to eat at. "We've got three S-class missing-nins, a Sannin, four Jounin, five Chuunin, and we even have the damn ghost, all to retrieve one angsty little brat who thinks that just because his family was killed way back when, his fucking issues are apparently worst than everybody else's so he must have the right to throw the world's biggest goddamn tantrum and make life miserable for everyone around him. Gathering this many people just for that is beyond overkill."

Throwing his hands up in exasperation, Naruto scans the table. Kisame and Hidan are at the end, with Itachi on Kisame's other side and Yuurei beside him. Then there's Kakashi who isn't reading his porn for once and is instead enjoying his yakitori as his visible eye lazily observes the rest of them. Gai and Lee are youthfully going through about half a pound of taiyaki all by themselves while Neji and Tenten watch on with morbid fascination. Yamato and Jiraiya are discussing something or other with a plate of pork buns between them while Sai and Sakura are snacking on onigiri and watching Naruto watch them.

It is outrageously domestic.

"I mean," Hidan continues, apparently not finished now that he's on a roll. "Whirly-Eyes over here lost the same family, right?"

"'Whirly-Eyes' killed that family," Naruto says flatly. Itachi's left eyebrow ticks up briefly like he really wants to either glare at Hidan or stick a kunai in him.

Hidan shrugs carelessly. "Worse for Itachi then, in my opinion. 'Sides, Sasuke got all whiny 'cause his family was mostly wiped out, and now his solution is to finish the job? Does he even plan ahead? What would he do after he hypothetically kills Itachi anyway? Not even Konoha's gonna be all that forgiving now that he's probably kicked off the next world war. Clan's gonna die out with him unless he finds some poor bitch to park it in, and that's only if whatever brats they have actually manage to worm their way back into your village's good graces."

He pauses to give Sakura a mocking leer that no one can mistake the meaning behind, and Sakura's face flushes with rage and humiliation and just the slightest hint of hurt, because once upon a time (and even to this day though not necessarily in the same way), she has always loved Sasuke. Perhaps it started shallow, but there's no doubt that the feeling's become deeper than that after they really became a team. Naruto knows this because he feels the same; he loves Sasuke like a brother, and he knows that he's not the only one who considers Team Seven a family.

So Naruto snarls and even Sai plasters on a faker smile than usual that means he's close to pissed but doesn't know how to express it. The artist doesn't know Sasuke, not really, but he does know Sakura, and he cares about her in his own emotionally awkward way.

"Hey, you shut your mouth!" Naruto barks furiously, ignoring the fact that what he's angry about most of all is what Hidan hasn't said.

"Hidan," Yuurei cuts in at the same time, and some of Naruto's anger ebbs because his mentor's voice has taken on that chilly tone that says he's displeased, and that pushing any further is going to be a Grade A mistake with nasty consequences not far behind.

Hidan's jaw clenches, looking like Yuurei has physically zipped his mouth shut. For a long, tense moment that draws the attention of the rest of the table (hell, they were probably already looking over when Sakura's killing intent spiked earlier), Yuurei holds the missing-nin's gaze, unyielding and unforgiving, one that would've reduced anyone with less balls than the immortal to a gibbering mess.

Beside Hidan, Kisame's hands have become motionless and his expression is borderline spellbound as he watches the silent faceoff, and while Itachi doesn't so much as twitch, there's an odd, almost satisfied glint in his eyes.

And as Naruto's temper cools, he wonders if anyone has ever been able to heel the foul-mouthed Jashinist before. Judging by Kisame and Itachi's minute reactions, probably not.

"Fuck! Fine!" Hidan snaps at last, shifting just a little uneasily in his seat. "You know, Kakuzu never gave a damn what I said to anyone before, seriously."

"I'm not Kakuzu," Yuurei counters coolly and raises an adamant eyebrow.

Hidan grimaces and mumbles a few more choice swear words under his breath before glowering derisively at Sakura. "My apologies, Princess. Didn't fucking mean to walk all over your delicate sensitivities."

That's the best anyone's going to get out of the Jashinist and the entire table knows it. It's shocking enough that Yuurei has managed to wring an apology out of Hidan in the first place.

Sakura's hands clench a couple times, and then, before Hidan can blink, she shoots up and decks him, punting him clean out of his seat and halfway across the street before blowing out an irritated breath and sitting down again.

"You're fucking forgiven, asshole," She growls as Hidan picks himself up off the ground and fills the street with obscenities.

Naruto whistles and surreptitiously inches away a little from his volatile teammate just in case she feels like taking her anger out on him. On her other side, Sai does the same; they've learned to have a healthy fear when it comes to the pink-haired medic's super strength.

Even Kisame looks faintly impressed, though probably less for her show of strength – something he's already seen before – and more for her guts at punching Hidan at all.

Hidan storms back over, looking like he wants nothing more than to whip out his scythe, but there's a spark of grudging respect in his gaze, gone in an instant as he sits back down again.

As the tension dissipates, leaving only Sakura and Hidan glaring at each other, Naruto makes a mental note to wheedle the story of just how Yuurei has managed to secure the lunatic's loyalty out of his mentor one day.

"Everything will be fine, Naruto," Yuurei interjects mildly once everyone is more or less settled down again. "Sit down and eat your lunch."

Naruto dithers for another second before heaving a sigh and plopping down into his seat with little grace. "Oh whatever; Sasuke won't attack us in the middle of a town anyway. Probably."

"Dunno; he might if Itachi's standing in it," Kisame remarks, but he doesn't seem all that concerned.

Naruto grimaces as he digs into the ramen he bought two stores down. Fish-Face has a point; Naruto wouldn't put it past the youngest Uchiha to storm an innocent town just to get to his brother.

Thirst for revenge combined with that Cursed Seal is making Sasuke crazier than ever.

Naruto sighs again, glancing up absently as he chews on a mouthful of ramen. He freezes when he catches sight of Yuurei's expression.

There is something dark and almost ominous in Yuurei's eyes, something a lot like hatred but not quite; something Naruto has never seen before.

What has brought this on? They were only talking about Sasuke.

Naruto is hesitant to call his mentor out on it though. While he's never seen Yuurei look like that before, it still reminds him a little too much of Yuurei's expression back when Sasuke first ran away with Orochimaru and Naruto confronted him about it.

Yuurei blinks and the look disappears. A moment later, Naruto is distracted by Jiraiya getting to his feet.

"Yuurei," The Sannin calls out, tone light as he steps around the table and tilts his head in the direction of one of the other benches several feet away. "A word?"

This garners the table's attention again as Yuurei glances up, features smoothed out once more. He nods once and rises to his feet as well, and the two of them retreat out of hearing range, still in plain sight as they stop at an empty table but voices lost amidst the bustle of the civilians around them.

Naruto's curiosity spikes but he manages to stop himself from attempting to eavesdrop because if Jiraiya doesn't notice him, then Yuurei will.

But he hasn't missed the pensive, speculative looks coming from his godfather for the past several days ever since that incident with Yuurei falling sick and meeting the Yondaime.

Like Jiraiya's figured something out and he doesn't particularly like what he's discovered. Like he almost wishes he hasn't found out at all.

It doesn't stop Naruto from peering at them though, and while they have their backs mostly turned to him and everyone else at his table, Naruto can still pick up the stiffening in Jiraiya's frame and the increasing agitation in his gestures. For some reason though, Yuurei still seems perfectly composed, or at least resigned to whatever Jiraiya's so bothered about.

Naruto abruptly chokes on his ramen when his godfather makes a long arm and hauls Yuurei to his feet by the collar of his flak jacket, all but shaking the blond as the Sannin rises to his full height.

And apparently, Naruto isn't the only one who has been watching them discreetly because Itachi's hand twitches for his kunai, Kisame aborts his move for another stick of dango and goes for his sword instead, and Hidan is already half out of his seat, looking less worried about Yuurei actually needing any of their help and more eager for a fight to break out so that he can join in.

Everybody else either makes startled sounds or tenses as they watch the impromptu altercation.

"Yuu-" Naruto starts, jumping to his feet, but sharp blue eyes slant over to them, the warning to stay put clear in that single glance.

Slowly, Naruto sits back down, and the three missing-nins linger in their seats as well, though none of them move their hands from their respective weapons.

In the next few minutes, Jiraiya and Yuurei trade several more indiscernible words, their exchange ending with the Sannin releasing Yuurei, something close to devastation in his features that is hastily suppressed before the man Shunshins away, chakra signature rapidly fading as he disappears from the vicinity.

Yuurei just calmly straightens his clothes before wandering back over, looking like nothing has happened at all.

"U- Um, Namikaze-san?" Tenten looks tentative at best. "Is- Is something wrong?"

Yuurei smiles at her but it looks tired more than anything else. "Call me Yuurei; 'Namikaze-san' is a bit long. And Jiraiya will be fine; he's just... He has some personal concerns to work out. He'll be back soon enough."

He pauses, gaze falling absently onto his mostly finished meal before looking up again. "I'm going to go for a walk.

"Alone, Itachi," He adds mildly when the Uchiha makes to get up.

Naruto is sure that in an entirely different dimension, the near unnoticeable crease in Itachi's brow means that the twenty-one-year-old man is sulking.

Probably out of reflex, Yuurei reaches out and ruffles Naruto's hair. "I'll meet you back at the inn, brat. See you later."

And with a last nod in their general direction, Yuurei Shunshins off, leaving only a whisper of wind behind.

Naruto sighs and suddenly doesn't feel all that hungry anymore. Instead of picking up his chopsticks again, he kneads his forehead and wonders why one of his most important people in the world also has to be the most secretive, hands down.

L.

Jiraiya does eventually come back, as does Yuurei, though the latter meanders into the inn that they're staying at several hours before the former. If Naruto hasn't seen the disagreement earlier, he would've thought that his godfather has gone to the local red-light district for some entertainment again.

When he finally does come back, Naruto, who is sharing a room with the Sannin, can't see anything amiss. Jiraiya looks about as carefree as usual, taunting Naruto about the lack of women in his life and writing more of his latest smut and grouching about Naruto using up all the hot water.

It doesn't get rid of Naruto's unsettled feeling though, and he stays awake long after even Jiraiya's breathing has evened out.

After Sasuke, Naruto promises himself as he stares up at the ceiling. After we get Sasuke back and this whole Kumo thing blows over, I'll ask Yuurei-san directly. About this, and what Tou-chan said, and the Kyuubi; about everything.

LI.

The next morning, Naruto treks downstairs and into the main hall, and then promptly turns on his heel and dives out of sight again because it's a rare sight for Kakashi to be seen anywhere before anyone else, yet the Copy-nin is already sitting in one of the booths in the attached dining area of the inn.

Across from him is Yuurei.

Back in Konoha, even during that time that Yuurei was hospitalized, Naruto has never seen Kakashi visit Yuurei even once, though he knows that the Copy-nin has been wanting to talk to Naruto's mentor since Yuurei first revealed himself.

Then again, to be fair, it wouldn't be Kakashi if the man isn't late for that too.

Naruto peeks around the corner again. His mentor and his former sensei don't seem to be talking at the moment so he supposes that they've already finished saying whatever they wanted to say, but there's a companionable air between them with Kakashi reading his Icha Icha and Yuurei sipping at a cup of tea.

Wavering for a moment longer, Naruto straightens and heads over to their table. Might as well; he's hungry anyway.

"'Morning, Yuurei-san! Kakashi-sensei!" He greets as he bounds up to them, slipping into the free seat beside Yuurei.

"Good morning, Naruto," Kakashi eye-smiles at him over the top of his book.

"Cheery today, aren't you?" Yuurei remarks, automatically tousling Naruto's hair.

Naruto swats the hand away and calls to one of the workers for some ramen, only to have Yuurei interrupt with a stern refusal and a pleasant "he'll have Order A with a side of salmon and pickles, and a bowl of miso soup, please" to the waiter.

Naruto huffs. "I like ramen more! And I hate vegetables!"

"You ate ramen yesterday," Yuurei admonishes. "And are you looking to stay at this height for the rest of your life?"

Naruto scowls indignantly and draws himself up. "That's the same thing you said two years ago! I'm a lot taller now than back then!"

Yuurei snorts. "I should hope so; it's been over two years. But I'm still taller."

Naruto eyes their height difference grumpily. "I'll catch up one day. You're even taller than Tou-chan, you know."

"Only by a bit," Yuurei says, forehead wrinkling in thought. "And I'm not taller than Jiraiya."

"No one's taller than Jiraiya," Naruto grumbles. "'Cept Fish-Face, but then nobody's taller than him. How old is that guy anyway?"

"Thirty-two," Yuurei reveals, reaching for his tea again. "Two years older than me."

"Eh?" Naruto blinks up at his mentor. "You're thirty? You're Kakashi-sensei's age?"

Yuurei exchanges a rather wry look with Kakashi. "You make us sound so old, Naruto."

Naruto rubs the back of his head, grinning despite himself. "That's not what I meant; I just thought you were older than Kakashi-sensei; that's all."

Kakashi seems somewhat pleased. "Oh? Well, I suppose I do look younger than my age."

Naruto gives him a deadpan expression. "I wouldn't know, Sensei. Actually, I just meant that Yuurei-san is like ten times more mature than you are."

Kakashi's eye twitches. Yuurei chuckles.

And then there's a shout from the stairwell and the rest of Naruto's friends tumble into the hall, Neji looking like he's been up for hours without a single hair out of place, Lee as exuberant as ever, and the rest shuffling in still half-asleep as they chorus good-mornings all around. Their respective senseis bring up the rear, shrugging on their vests or coats.

As they all crowd into the dining area, Naruto scans the room before glancing back at Yuurei. "Hey, where are Itachi and the others?"

Naruto motions out the window with his cup. "Itachi woke up when I did; he volunteered to do a perimeter run of the town. Hidan and Kisame are out at the baths; there aren't many people there at this time so they won't have to hide their faces or use a henge."

Yuurei pauses, and then really frowns this time. "Actually, Itachi should be back by now. I was talking to Kakashi and lost track of time..."

Naruto feels his blood run cold even as Yuurei stands up, movements shifting from no-problem-relaxed to lethal-relaxed in the span of half a heartbeat. Across from them, Kakashi is already tucking his Icha Icha away, visible eye having momentarily widened in alarm as the implied situation sinks in.

"Hey, shut up!" Naruto hollers as he shoots to his feet as well, impending breakfast forgotten. The room shuts up as the gathering of Konoha-nins all turn as one to look at him. "Yuurei-san?"

Yuurei's frown only deepens as he stares out the window, senses probably stretching who knows how far as he searches for Itachi's chakra signature. The town's not that big, all things considered, but it would still take some skill to sense someone standing on the opposite side of town.

"Itachi's not here anymore," Yuurei says at last, vaulting out of his seat and onto a free patch of floor. "He's not in town, I mean. He's flaring his chakra just beyond the south border though, and I can sense Sasuke; I'll meet you there."

And without another word, Yuurei disappears in a flash of Hiraishin, leaving a frozen audience behind.

"Well what the hell are we waiting for?!" Naruto demands, leaping away from the table as well and mentally giving himself a pat on the back for packing up and grabbing his weapons from his room before coming down earlier. "I'm going on ahead!"

And ignoring Sakura's cry for him to "Wait! Are you just going to charge in there?", Naruto hightails it out of the inn, legs pumping as he dashes over the rooftops and towards the south border. If he concentrates, even he can feel it; not Itachi's signature but Naruto would know Sasuke's chakra anywhere, especially with the clogged murky feel of the Cursed Seal mixed in.

A whoosh of air beside him draws his gaze to the side, and he finds Kakashi sprinting alongside him, as focused as any shinobi on an S-rank mission. Seconds later, Naruto senses Sakura only several steps behind him, and then Yamato and Sai are there as well.

Naruto knows that the others aren't far behind, and while he knows he can depend on his friends to help him out, he still hopes that they'll stay out of this fight as much as possible.

Because this is Team Seven business; Sasuke is one of theirs, and it's Team Seven's job to bring him back.

LII.

"YOU LIAR!"

"Why the hell would I lie about something like this?!" Naruto bellows back for what's got to be the tenth time since his battle with Sasuke started.

The moment he and the rest of his teammates reaches the clearing where Yuurei and Itachi (who's thankfully none the worse for wear) are duking it out with Sasuke and his team (Naruto is not so sorry to say that he irrationally hates them all on sight), both of them pull out and Yuurei catches his eye for a fraction of a second, steady and encouraging and filled with absolute faith.

He's all yours, Naruto almost hears. Get him back.

Yuurei and Jiraiya has then proceeded to systematically set up seals around the clearing while Kisame, who arrives with Hidan a few minutes after Naruto arrives, sneers at the white-haired guy wielding a sword but refrains from engaging him even when the idiot challenges the missing-nin. Instead, with a rather chilly smile on his face and an expression even more wooden than usual, Sai and Yamato tag-teams him in a fight somewhere out of sight amongst the trees.

Sakura zeroes in on the redhead and the two females clash instantly, though from what Naruto has glimpsed, his teammate clearly has the upper hand.

The other guy with orange hair and darkened skin, and the bulkiest of the lot is taken by Kakashi. The Copy-nin isn't pulling any punches as his Sharingan is revealed and the two of them crash into each other with murderous intent. Typically, Kakashi likes to take his time and go at his own pace, but the entire forest area can feel the uncontrolled killing rage pouring off the orange-haired shinobi. Kakashi can't afford to taunt his opponent by pretending to be disinterested.

And then there's Sasuke.

Naruto's blurted out the entire story between blows and the bastard just won't accept it. Not that that's entirely surprising but it's still frustrating that the moron simply refuses to see the truth.

"Just get out of my way!" Sasuke screams at him, attempting a Chidori even as Naruto dodges it. "Do you understand who you're protecting, Naruto?! He's a murderer! He murdered my entire family!"

"Oh shut up, Sasuke-teme!" Naruto snaps back irritably as he weaves around Sasuke's punches and kicks and returns several of his own. His teammate is... not slow exactly, but slower than Naruto expects. He's used to Yuurei's blurring speeds and lightning-fast strikes. Sasuke has nothing on Yuurei.

"Why can't you just listen for once?!" Naruto rants as he executes a roundhouse kick that sends Sasuke flying backwards into a tree. "Most of Konoha's shinobi knows the truth now; you're the only idiot who doesn't! Tsunade-baa-chan's just waiting for the right moment to pardon Itachi!"

If anything, this just makes Sasuke even angrier. The Uchiha looks near apoplectic. "Then I'll destroy Konoha as well for siding with my Clan's killer!"

Naruto rolls his eyes. This is really getting old.

It's not that he's unsympathetic about Sasuke's loss, but there are other people out there who have lost more, who are poorer or more heartbroken or lives as nothing more than slaves or a million other things. At least Sasuke has a brother who loves him more than anything in the world and a place to call home and friends who would all go to bat for him. At least Sasuke has had half of a relatively happy childhood; even Naruto's had bouts of depression back in the days when he had little immunity to people spitting at him, and throwing rocks at him, and selling rotten groceries to him or refusing to sell him anything at all, and chasing him all over town with makeshift weapons on his birthday, and wishing he was drowned at birth.

No one's ever wished Sasuke was drowned at birth.

Sasuke is wallowing in self-pity.

And Naruto's had enough. He's been able to move on, to look ahead, to find people who care about him and love him just for him; why can't Sasuke, who has always had that if only the idiot would open his eyes and look, do the same?

Flicking out several clones, Naruto takes the opportunity to activate Sage Mode, slipping on his chakra blades and taking care to close his eyes as well. Yuurei has put him through his paces when it comes to fighting blind; exactly for the purpose of taking on an Uchiha.

"You think you can fight me blind?!" Sasuke's voice is one big scornful, infuriated sneer. "Don't underestimate me!"

Naruto's not underestimating him though; that's the whole point of closing his eyes, even though it also loses him the advantage of sight. And maybe that would be a problem, somewhere, some-when, if Yuurei hasn't been by his side ever since he was a Genin, always pushing him to be better, stronger, always focused on Naruto and taking him seriously, then Naruto may be weaker than he is right now with only Kakashi's admittedly half-assed training and Jiraiya's sometimes distracted guidance under his belt, but Yuurei has been here even if he wasn't physically here all the time, but he has been in every way that matters, every step of the way, polishing his taijutsu, teaching him ninjutsu, giving him advice, making sure he eats, and treating Naruto like Naruto's one of the most important things in his life.

Really, Naruto owes Yuurei a hell of a lot.

He feels Sasuke rushing in from his left, and without hesitation, Naruto ducks under the first swipe of his teammate's sword before lashing out with his own weapons in two rapid punches as he reinforces them with wind chakra.

The first one misses; the second one slams straight into Sasuke's abdomen.

It doesn't deter Sasuke for long, and while Naruto dodges the next few blows, a roundhouse kick snaps one of his ribs and sends him careening into a tree trunk.

He rolls out of the way as Sasuke descends on him with a barrage of kunai (Are you really trying to kill me, Sasuke?), and then flip upright again just in time to meet Sasuke's next strike.

"If I have to beat the truth into your head, Sasuke," Naruto growls when Sasuke's next Chidori comes close enough to take off a few strands of his hair. "Then that's what I'm gonna do! All you're doing is making yourself miserable! Do you want to be miserable for the rest of your life?! How the hell would you feel if you actually did manage to kill Itachi, and then find out afterwards that everything I've been saying is true?!"

"Shut up!" Sasuke snarls from somewhere behind him. "You don't know how much I've suffered because of him!"

Naruto doesn't waste breath trying to get through to him. He knows he's promised Yuurei and Jiraiya that he wouldn't use the Hiraishin anymore, but he's had just about enough of Sasuke's whining (and yeah, Naruto thinks dispassionately, it's whining), and he's already done it once anyway.

So, waiting for Sasuke to draw as close as possible without actually getting skewered by his teammate's blade, Naruto concentrates hard, flicks a kunai behind him, and flashes away with Hiraishin, appearing again behind a visibly shocked Sasuke and skidding unsteadily through the air before twisting around and slamming a foot down on Sasuke's back, driving the Uchiha into the ground before knocking him out with one blow to the back of his head.

Naruto stills, slipping out of Sage Mode as he digests three things.

One: his second Hiraishin felt a lot smoother than his first.

Two: beating Sasuke was... well, frankly, a lot easier than he expected, almost like he's been training for exactly this for a long time now.

And three: God, that felt good.

Naruto lets out a triumphant whoop, his childish, immature self rearing its head. How's that for the Dead-Last of the Academy?

"Uzumaki-kun," Itachi interjects politely as he appears beside Naruto. "If you could hold him still?"

Naruto blinks when he sees that the elder Uchiha's Sharingan is activated, and not only that; it is also in its Mangekyou stage. "Itachi...?"

"Orochimaru is still... infesting my brother's body," Itachi clarifies. "I can seal him away, along with the Cursed Seal."

Naruto's eyebrows rise. He has been wondering how they are going to deal with Orochimaru. Yuurei's seal will take care of the Cursed Seal, but Orochimaru is a different story.

"You can do that?" Naruto asks inquisitively even as he flips Sasuke around and clamps his hands on his teammate to hold him still. "With your Sharingan? That's so cool!"

Itachi's mouth tilts up into something that could pass for an amused smile before he blinks once as his gaze shifts to an empty patch of grass. "Susa-"

"Itachi."

And Yuurei is suddenly there, one hand clamping down on Itachi's shoulder. Itachi almost starts, and a flicker of guilt crosses his face as he turns to Naruto's mentor.

"We talked about this," Yuurei is all but glowering at him. "You are not sacrificing yourself just to kill the snake bastard. Knock it off."

Naruto's eyes widen in horror as he jumps to his feet. "What?! Sacrifice yourself?!"

Yuurei glances at him lips pressed together in a thin line. "Susanoo creates a gigantic, humanoid being that surrounds the user, defending and attacking as necessary. You could say it's the user's guardian deity. As it happens, Itachi's Susanoo also wields the Sword of Totsuka, an enchanted blade capable of sealing anyone it pierces. Problem is, using Susanoo at all immediately begins consuming the user's life as compensation because it eats up chakra like nothing else."

He turns a sharp gaze on Itachi. "You're not using it, idiot. Don't be a martyr; you've been enough of that to last three lifetimes."

Itachi stares unblinkingly back at Yuurei's resolute features for a long minute, almost like he's searching for something, and perhaps he finds it because his Mangekyou eventually fades back to the typical three-tomoe eyes, and the Uchiha dips his head in acquiescence.

Naruto figures he should say something too, because he didn't know the full consequences earlier and he so totally doesn't think it's cool anymore.

So he scowls up at Itachi instead. "I take it back; that is so not cool. Don't even try it again; that's just stupid."

This time, Naruto is sure Itachi smiles, except the amusement is noticeably genuine.

"So what do we do instead?" Naruto asks, scratching his head. "Does your seal...?"

Yuurei sighs, quicksilver thoughts flickering through his eyes as he crouches down beside Sasuke. "No, the seal I gave you doesn't seal people."

Naruto squints at his mentor as he squats down as well. "The seal you gave me? Then... do you have another one that would work?"

Yuurei quirks a faint smile at him. "You're learning. Yes, I do, but it's permanent. It's basically like the one I used on Black Zetsu."

Naruto wracks his brain for a downside to this. "Uh... isn't that a good thing?"

"Hmm," Yuurei's eyes drifts to Sasuke's face, and again, Naruto spots that dark near-hatred on his mentor's face, that same turmoil of emotion that he saw yesterday at lunch.

It scares him because Yuurei almost looks like he wants to finish Sasuke off right then and there.

"Yuurei-san?" Naruto prods cautiously.

Yuurei blinks and the look disappears. "Right, well, I'll get rid of the Cursed Seal and Orochimaru now. Naruto, go lend Kakashi a hand, will you?"

Naruto looks around and finally registers the rising killing intent on the far left, as well as the blue lightning flaring up amongst the trees. Come to think of it, the others are nowhere in sight either; have they all joined the battle?

"The heck is wrong with the guy Kakashi-sensei's facing?" Naruto asks in bewilderment as he adjusts his chakra blades.

"His name's Juugo," Yuurei reveals. "He can't control his temper. He has the ability to constantly absorb natural energy, which makes him fly into a rage at a moment's notice. He once destroyed an entire village. Go subdue him; don't kill him if you don't have to. He's actually a decent guy when he's not mentally unstable."

Naruto winces at the animalistic bellow of fury coming from Juugo's direction but nods warily. "Alright; just knocking him out should do it, right?"

"Yeah," Yuurei nods. "If you can manage to do that. If you can overpower his killing intent, that'll work too."

Naruto is fairly certain that only something terrible like the death of one of his closest friends can make his killing intent match Juugo's.

He glances down one more time before straightening to his full height; even if Yuurei really does dislike Sasuke, his mentor would never kill someone without cause, especially a mere teenager, not to mention Itachi is there as well.

"Oh, and Naruto?"

Naruto cranes his head around. "Yeah?"

Yuurei narrows his eyes at him. "If you use the Hiraishin before I say you're ready even just one more time, I will personally tie you up and toss you into the women's baths when Baa-chan and Sakura are in there, understand?"

Naruto sweatdrops and laughs nervously. "Yes, sir."

Yuurei scoffs and waves him away. "Just so we're clear."

Naruto speeds off; he is not running away.

...Though he knows his mentor well enough by now to realize that the threat will be followed through to the letter if he uses Hiraishin again. Yuurei could be sadistic like that.

LIII.

"We got Sasuke back."

"Yes, Dickless, you've already said that. Thirty-four times."

Naruto can't help it. He just grins and rests his arms behind his head as they stroll through the forest in the direction of Konoha. It hasn't sunk in until now, but they got Sasuke back.

Sakura is hovering beside Sasuke, looking torn between checking him over (again), hugging him (even though he's unconscious), and punching his lights out (which Naruto totally approves, even more so that she's probably holding back until Sasuke' conscious enough to feel the full force of the blow).

Kakashi doesn't outwardly show any signs of relief or happiness, and he's still reading his Icha Icha like it's going out of style, but his shoulders are relaxed in a way that looks like a weight has been lifted from them.

Itachi is the one carrying Sasuke though, a seal – courtesy of Yuurei – binding the younger Uchiha's chakra as he slumps against his brother's back. They've all agreed that it would be best for their captives to remain unconscious until they reach home.

Suigetsu is rather unceremoniously slung over Kisame's shoulder, while Karin, one cheek still bruised (much to Sakura's vindictively smug satisfaction), is being carried by Yamato.

On the other hand, Juugo is walking with them.

Or rather, he's huddled as close as possible to Yuurei's side, with only two feet between them. He probably would've been closer if half the group isn't keeping a close watch on the bipolar shinobi, Hidan actually keeping his scythe drawn as the Jashinist glares death at the poor guy, probably due to the semi-hole that Juugo managed to rip open in the immortal's side eight hours ago. Needless to say, Hidan isn't all that happy.

Either way though, it doesn't change the fact that Juugo is wide awake and jittery.

However, eight hours ago, the same guy almost pummeled half their contingent into the ground until Yuurei had to step in.

Naruto's mentor barred, Jiraiya and Kakashi were the ones who were the most well-equipped out of them in dealing with Juugo; even Naruto was staggered by the overwhelming wave of killing intent that Juugo expelled.

Yet Yuurei stepping in changed the tide of that battle in an instant. Naruto's mentor simply strode right up to the murderous berserker and unleashed his own killing intent, and that alone crippled Naruto in the span of a second.

Yuurei's killing intent was real and hardened and deadly, half-choking most of them even though it wasn't even aimed in their direction, going so far that even Kakashi buckled and only Jiraiya stood firm against it. It did successfully snap Juugo out of his – for lack of better words – temper tantrum though; it was truly mystifying to see a six-foot-something shinobi quail as quickly as Juugo did.

And now, with Yuurei's assurance, the orange-haired shinobi is walking next to Yuurei, silent and wary but content enough to remain non-threatening. Strangely enough, the guy seems most comfortable staying as close as possible to the one person amongst them who can – probably quite easily – kill him.

Juugo's also told them that no, they haven't kidnapped Killer B; the Kumo-nin actually beat them.

The Hachibi Jinchuuriki has already risen in Naruto's eyes for that alone and he hasn't even met the guy.

Still, that leaves the question of where he is if he hasn't been abducted, but at least that's one problem out of the way.

A rustle up ahead draws their attention, and then Sakura hurries forward, looking surprised. "Retsu? Is that you?"

A slug crawls forward to meet them, and Naruto has to muffle a snicker when he catches Hidan drawing back in apprehension; apparently, the immortal doesn't like slugs.

"Yes, Sakura-hime," The slug bobs its head as Sakura bends down to scoop it up. "Tsunade-hime sent me with an important message."

Naruto stiffens at this as they all draw closer.

The slug – Retsu – looks about as worried as a slug can look, which actually isn't that much, but still.

"You are to be careful in any future actions you take," Retsu says plainly, voice serene. "The man known as Shimura Danzou has made his move; his Root faction has taken over the village. All of Konoha is on lockdown, and even the delegation of Kumo-nins has been detained."

Everyone just stares for a long what-the-fuck moment.

"W- What?!" Tenten exclaims. "Danzou's taken over the village?"

Retsu nods. "Yes. He has sent several Root out to hunt you down as well."

Another long pause.

"Well shit," Naruto sums up for lack of anything better to say.

"What are our orders?" Kakashi enquires calmly.

"There are no specific orders," Retsu says. "Any rescue missions you launch must be carried out with utmost care."

The slug's tentacles – the one time Naruto called them antennae, Sakura bopped him on the head and corrected him – wave and shift over to Yuurei's direction.

"And any mission you carry out," Retsu finishes. "Is to have Konohagakure's Namikaze Yuurei-sama take point. He is to lead any and all rescue missions carried out."

As one, everyone swings around to look at Yuurei. Yuurei stares back evenly but there's an unnatural rigidity in his stance.

"...It'd probably be better if Kakashi-" Yuurei starts, but Kakashi is already shaking his head.

"Maa, I'm not all that good at re-hijacking an entire village. I'd rather hear one of your plans," Kakashi says cheerfully and eye-smiles his approval.

"Well I'm game for that too," Hidan speaks up, scythe casually resting against one shoulder. "I don't particularly care if this village gets fucked over by some old geezer you all should've killed half a century ago but I don't mind killing him myself."

"If it's the Hokage's orders, then we will youthfully follow them!" Gai proclaims next, shooting Yuurei a thumbs-up. "Besides, your flames of youth have proven to be a force to be reckoned with!"

Jiraiya looks wholly unconcerned, probably because he's been following Yuurei's lead for a while now, and everyone else falls in line like Yuurei has always been their commanding officer.

Naruto beams. One day, he's going to wrangle Yuurei into at least taking up a Jounin rank. It would be fantastic if his mentor's place in Konoha is official.

"Right, well then," Yuurei just sighs, closing his eyes for a moment. "Thank you, I suppose. For trusting me."

For a split second, he almost looks pained, but that vanishes before Naruto can even blink.

Instead, the slightest of smiles, edged with committed determination and a scheming sort of mischief that's shockingly close to what Naruto sees on his own face in the mirror sometimes right before he plays a colossally humilliating prank, graces Yuurei's features.

"Let's go steal back a village."


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