Disclaimer: Nothing's changed.
Random Notes: The shot about Jiraiya calling himself noble is a reference to 'The Tale of Noble Jiraiya,' where the Jiraiya, Tsunade and Orochimaru's names and animal allegiances come from. Second, "Nenekiya" should be sounded out as "Nen-eki-ya," rather than "Ne-ne-ki-ya."
Things That Cannot Be Fought
For all Naruto knew, there were worse feelings in the world than being abandoned, but it was the bad feeling he knew best. An outsider might think hatred would be closer to his heart, but that was a feeling that had been directed to him, not one he felt himself. But abandonment, that he knew. Every time a mission was over and his teammates—former teammates—walked to their own homes, leaving him to go to an empty apartment, he felt it. When Sasuke, his best friend in the whole damn world—who he aimed his Rasengan at not because he felt hatred but because it was the only way he could say "You're my best friend in the whole damn world,"—left Konoha for the Sound village, he felt it. When Iruka left on a mission, Naruto might as well have been the only person left in the world. But somehow, when Jiraiya left, it was harder than all of that. Naruto guessed it was because the last time Jiraiya left, he'd taken Naruto with him. He had to ask himself, sitting on that same old swing outside of the Academy, where he always seemed to wind up when he was lonely and not in the mood for ramen, did he really expect Jiraiya to always take him along?
The answer should have been "No," considering Jiraiya was just some guy who came and went as he pleased and didn't owe Naruto anything. But really, the answer was "Yes," because Jiraiya was the only person who bothered taking Naruto on trips, or teaching him secrets, or sharing ice pops, or telling him about his dad. The answer should have been "No, because he steals my money and spends it on hookers and booze," not, "Yeah, since it all worked out anyway."
He didn't have Team Seven, not since they'd all gone their own ways. Even though they acted at the time like they would all see each other anyway, Naruto had no idea what Sasuke or Sakura or Kakashi were doing now.
He didn't have Iruka, since after the Academy closed, the teachers were regular chuunin, sent on missions just like anyone else.
He didn't have Konohamaru and company because they were spread out through Fire Country, alone and scared or alone and itching to fight.
He didn't have his father, because the Fourth Hokage died sealing a fox demon into his baby's belly.
He didn't have his mother, and he never even knew who she was in the first place.
He didn't have anybody, because Jiraiya apparently decided that pissing off Tsunade was more important than the kid he almost kinda took care of sometimes.
All he had was that same dream, so he said to himself, "When I'm Hokage, it'll be a rule that orphans have to be adopted and have someone who'll say "'Welcome home'…" A rule to make all the Narutos and Sasukes and Irukas of the world not so lonely, and the Kakashis couldn't say that they used to have important people, but they all died. This idea, Naruto filed underneath his promise to Neji about the Branch and Main House, since they both had that "completely implausible" thing going…
A year ago, Naruto would have forced himself out of this funk with some good old healthy vandalism. Now, he didn't want to paint snot coming out of the nose of the first man on the mountain—Tsunade's grandfather. He did, after all, wear the guy's necklace everyday. The second guy was the first guy's brother. That's no good. The third man was killed by Orochimaru, died protecting the village and doing lasting damage to a terrible enemy. It was the first funeral Naruto had ever gone to. And the fourth was his own father.
The how wasn't as difficult as one might think. Hidden Sound was a small village whose only real strength was in their founder and his closest subordinates. Hidden Sand was among the earliest and strongest of the shinobi villages, under the guidance of one of the five Shadows. Years ago, the government of Wind Country cut the funding of Hidden Sand and as a result, the previous Kazekage, Gaara's father, had severely spiked the level of competence expected from Sand ninja. The Sand nin had out numbered the Sounds and over powered the majority. The strongest became victims of Shukaku.
In short, legends respected by Konoha meant nothing to a demonic tanuki. As the nine-tailed fox was unable to be defeated by the masters of Toad, Snake and Snail, so was Shukaku. A demon could be contained by a ninja, but it could not be killed. As long as Shukaku had a vessel that was willing to use his power, then the only enemy who could stand in the boy's way would have to possess an even stronger demon. It was a balance of its own, Jiraiya realized. Naruto was no match for Orochimaru or any of the current masters, because he relied first on himself. Gaara was no match for Naruto, because the fox was more powerful than the tanuki when the blonde choose to use the other chakra in his possession. And Orochimaru could be killed by Gaara, because he used overwhelming force first, and thought about anything else second or not at all. Orochimaru could draw upon nothing outside of himself and what was inside could be contained by the sand.
It was the why that bothered Jiraiya. Last he knew, the Sand had allied itself with Sound. Unless Sand was so accustomed to betrayal that they were capable of turning against their comrades yet again…
Gaara's heavily blackened eyes focused on Jiraiya for a moment, as though weighting what it would be worth to him to answer this old man's question.
"I hate him. I destroy what I hate."
The old man was not satisfied.
"My sister," the boy said finally, "is a strong kunoichi who understands what it is to be hurt. I never cared about her, or our brother, until Uzumaki Naruto defeated me. Orochimaru killed our father and he made my sister cry. Temari shouldn't be someone who cries. She's too strong for that."
Jiraiya smiled, placed an affectionate hand on the boy's head and said, "Then I have no business here." He withdrew his hand, "I came for Orochimaru as well."
Gaara snorted. "Be glad he's dead."
"I can't. I'm an old fool set in his ways and in Konoha, we're never glad when our teammates are killed."
"If you didn't come to kill him, why did you come at all?"
"There's an old story in Konoha that young people such as yourself never want to hear. They are too impatient, they don't care about history and they don't question the things they are taught to believe. Just about no one knows the story anymore, but they all know two things. The first," he held up one finger, "is that the one who walks away from the fight is the one who was not fighting for himself. The second," another finger, "is that the Toad never kills the Snake.
"It sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it? Orochimaru, the Snake, was looking out for no one but himself. I could have easily swept into become the hero who triumphs in his fight for his village. It's an idea I tried to plant in Orochimaru's head all these years, but at the same time, I've been shiftless. No friends, no family, no home, no loved ones. I've seen what death does to people. Thought it would be best not have anything to lose and no one would could lose me."
"In other words you came to die," Gaara interpreted, with no small amount of disgust in his voice. "Don't be a coward and call yourself noble."
"Didn't call myself either," Jiraiya reminded him. "I came thinking, 'fine, maybe this will kill me, but if I'm going down, I'm putting an end to that damn myth that's ruined my life by taking him down with me.'
"But," Jiraiya excused himself, and began to walk away, "who knows what would have happened? After all, I've got someplace to go back to now and I'm looking forward to it."
Gaara watched the old man go, stood up from the dead man's throne and ran off to look for his brother and sister.
For all her former dedication to anything found in a text book, Sakura had to admit, once she was face to face with one, that she knew nothing about slugs. Naruto and Sasuke had it easy; you look at a toad or a snake, you know where its eyes are and where its mouth is. Gastropods were a bit harder.
She'd put everything she had left into one final attempt for the day, lost her balance and fell over, landing on her rump. And there, on Sakura's knee, not sitting or standing of anything she could relate to, was a slug. She thought it might be staring back at her, but then it occurred to her that she had no idea where a slug's eyes were.
Still, she gave the slug a shakey smile and said, "Nice to meet you."
"Hi," the slug replied, sounding somewhat like a shy little boy with a stuffy nose. "My name's Nenekiya."
"I'm Sakura," she replied, growing more confident and more aware of how sticky and slimy her knee felt.
"I like cherries…"
"Well," Sakura said, glancing behind her at Tsunade, who sat at her desk appearing as though she was trying very hard not to laugh, "since you are my very first summon, I think that calls for a treat." For the whole walk from the Hokage's office to the tea shop, Nenekiya rode on Sakura's shoulder. She told herself that it was because she was proud that she'd been able to summon him and wanted to show her skill off, but she couldn't entirely deny that she didn't want his slime on her skin again, even after he'd bragged about the healing properties of his mucus. (Being so used to Naruto and Sasuke, who either had extremely large egos or were extremely good at faking it, Sakura didn't recognize that the young slug just wanted her to like him.)
"I don't know if they have cherries," Sakura was saying as the drapes spelling out 'Dango' came into view, "but they might have something cherry-flavored. But anyway, you like sweets, too, don't you?"
The reply she heard, "I don't eat sweets," came not from Nenekiya, but from one Uchiha Sasuke, who was crammed into a booth with Anko next to him and Kakashi sitting across. Sakura caught Kakashi's eye and he motioned for her to sit with them. After a brief "Hi!" and merry wave, Anko went back to the grueling task of trying to force something overloaded with sugar down the boy's throat.
A waitress, noting that a fourth person had joined table set a ceramic glass of green tea down for Sakura, though didn't ask for an order. The group didn't seem aware of her.
Sasuke had finally answered one of Anko's whines with, "I'm hypoglycemic."
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Hypoglycemic means you have to eat sugar. You mean diabetic, which you're not, since you've never taken insulin shots on long missions. Nice try, though." Sasuke glared at her. People usually bought that one. She stuck her tongue out. He rolled his eyes and turned away.
When the waitress came back, Sakura asked for a full menu, since she didn't know what to order for Nenekiya. Congratulations were in order, as he was Sakura's first summon. Kakashi mentioned in an off-handed manner that both Sasuke and Sakura had a long way to go before they caught up with Naruto's ability. Sasuke seemed to pretend not to hear him, while Sakura complained that it wasn't fair to compare their summons with Naruto's, since he'd been doing it for so much longer.
But talking about Naruto only reminded them that he wasn't there. This wasn't sitting at the Ichiraku as Team Seven or a quick lunch on the road during a mission. No higher force was telling them they had to be a group anymore, though. Spending time with two friends didn't necessarily mean you had to spend time with all of them at once. Later, Sakura decided, she'd set up a group thing with the old Team Seven. At the moment, she was on the standing on the edge of the new team Uchiha, watching two more people who'd forced themselves into Sasuke's life, trading teasing like he was their little brother. She smiled. For all he seemed angry and indignant, for a while now, he'd seemed a little happy, too.
It was a stupid, stupid question, but for the five days since Jiraiya had been gone, he was one Naruto knew he ought to ask.
"Will you be my dad?"
The old man, who'd returned from the Sound village with an old weight lifted off his shoulders and a new one settled there, said, "No."
"I knew your father and I wouldn't want to take his place. I want you to know what kind of man he was and do him proud. Walk your own path, without someone holding your hand and telling you right from wrong, because you already know that, and everything else you'll need to grow to be a good man. It's too late now for someone to come in and try to be a parent. You can't forge the bonds between a child and father overnight.
"I'm too old anyway. I'd make a better grandpa."
Naruto hugged him.
"Now! Let's see if we can find you a nice young grandma!"