Title: Swallowed a Fly
Summary: Love is born from a metaphor.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Swallowed a Fly
"The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It's full of charts and facts
Some figures and instructions for dancing..."
(Peter Gariel, "The Book of Love")
"Yawning dog swallows a fly"is a Vietnamese proverb, meaning 'a stroke of luck'.
Naruto remembers being fifteen and feeling like he can't wait to grow up soon enough, always thinking that time would never run out for him (and summer days get shorter the older you get; where have all those summers gone?). He likes to follow Jiraiya on some of his short but frequent little sidetrips, whether or not the Sannin wants the company, and he's old enough now for the women at the bar (always the ones with wall-eyes and bad teeth) to offer him drinks, but still young enough that when he declines, they only smile indulgently (still those crooked, yellow teeth) and let him sit on for an hour or two.
This time it's a tiny roadhouse on the county line, well-stocked with liquor and far enough outback for the bar to never be crowded. It's quaint, he thinks, greasy floor and steady hum of the neon tube creating a kind of cheap but homey atmosphere you just don't get anywhere else.
His teacher is in a drinking mood tonight. Naruto doesn't actually mind, but trying not to count the sake bottles lining up on the scarred tabletop in front of them is becoming an effort. Twice already the bar-matron has laid out a new dish of dainties in front of him, each accompanied with a sigh and a long suffering glance. Like she's sympathizing with him—winking a conspiratorial "I've got one at home myself." perhaps—and for an absurd moment he wants to protest, tell her she doesn't know anything about Jiraiya.
The impulse passes.
"Shouldn't you be out training?"
He looks up at that. Jiraiya turns on his stool to face him, thankfully not swaying (not yet: that comes later). In the dim light, his eyes look red and strained, like there's something in their corners (something sharp and salty) that's preventing him from seeing properly.
"Don't feel like it, I guess," he says with a grin, made extra toothy for the occasion.
Is rewarded with a crooked sneer. "I thought you wanted to get strong as fast as possible."
"Well you're not making much of an effort to get there."
It's the same old conversation, practically creaking in its well-worn monotony. Only the banter is slightly out of tune tonight, the overplayed notes clattering gracelessly to the floor. Discordant.
On stage, the local band is pausing for a breather. By some queer accident, the singer has left the microphone switched on, the speakerhead sitting directly next to his mouth as he chugs his complementary drink. The amplified click of his throat in swallow makes a crisp, brittle sound, quickly followed by a long, lingering sigh, full of some latent bitterness.
"But I'm getting there all the same," he answers confidently. Not that it matters, because he doesn't think Jiraiya can actually hear him.
But he means what he said alright, no need to harp on it. There are still goals to be achieved, promises to be kept, three-year grace periods and all that—he hasn't forgotten. But he isn't twelve anymore, and this isn't about some stupid little boy rivalry, who can climb to top of the tree first, who can eat more servings at supper… He's learning his limits (all of them), and anyway, there's still plenty of time (right?).
Right now, he's content to sit in this dark, grimy room and watch his teacher drink. Study the way Jiraiya pours the last drop of sake into his jackpip cup and studies the bottom of his empty bottle like all the answers to his life might be lying in its liquor-slick depth.
"Ever find anything interesting down there?"
The Sannin jerks awkwardly and fixes his bleary gaze on Naruto like he's only just remembered his presence. Says, "Why, Naruto-kun, you've become so witty all of a sudden that I hardly recognize you," and smiles two different smiles with his lips and his eyes.
Naruto has learned over the years to pick out which smile is meant for him.
Traveling with a kid like Naruto, Jiraiya knows, is an exercise in patience, and not for the first time in his life he wishes he'd been born with a more ample supply of the stuff.
As it stands, the situation has its pros and cons.
Consider, for example, the boy's uncanny ability to constantly surprise. Pro: coming up with just the right folk cure for hangovers (cabbage leaves crushed in fresh tomato juice) on the mornings Jiraiya's head and stomach are giving him very different sorts of advice about his life and prospect, and he's feeling so sick he wants to eat his hands.
Then there are the cons. Which are, unfortunately, just as wide and varied in their unexpectedness.
Like, say, when they're traveling through a country ridden with fens and marshy fields, and Naruto, all over the place on any given day, gets lost.
The boy fumbles about a tall green hill covered with crawling creepers for hours, not remembering how he got there in the first place but helpless to escape. Silver rain spins madly on all sides, turning all the patches of greenery blurry and distant. Suddenly, out of the mist, a woman approaches him with a basket of colorful mochi, and offers them to him. In his hunger, Naruto wolfs down about twenty in two bites. The woman has kind eyes and smiles at him gently, strokes his mucked hair as he eats.
By the time Jiraiya finds him, having followed the sound of whimpering moans, Naruto's stomach is bloated like an inner-tube, and his mouth is muddy with soil. There's not a soul in sight, only a sad little mound sitting to one side, green with grass.
Naruto refuses to tell him what he and the ghost talked about that dreary day under the hill, and Jiraiya has never asked.
Everyone in Konoha (and a few denizens of other villages) knows that Naruto's first love is Sakura-chan.
A smaller number of people, with the sad exception of the boy in question, are privy to the knowledge that Hyuuga Hinata has had a crush on Naruto for maybe as many years as the two have noticed each other (three for him, eleven for her).
Jiraiya is the only person in the world who knows that Naruto met and relentlessly pursued a farmer's daughter by the name of Suzume when he was fourteen, overcoming her girlish hesitation as he overcomes all of his challenges, and carried her picking gears back and forth for two bliss-filled weeks that culminated in his first (legitimate) kiss under the watchful supervision of a harvest moon.
Naruto himself is fully aware that Jiraiya knows far more than his maverick-pervert-turned-teacher act would let on, that his insight goes far beyond that which his own (rather woeful) romantic escapades would suggest. This is why he is only half-surprised when the Sannin quietly pulls him aside the day before his Grass Country mission begins, and asks if he may have a word with him.
"I know you've been preparing for this for the last three years," says Jiraiya, stained eyes solemn and downcast, "but don't be too disappointed if it doesn't turn out the way you want."
Naruto doesn't really understand why his teacher stared at him so intently that day, why his caution resonated with such foreboding poignancy, until he is (once again) bleeding in the dust, dirt grains grinding bitterly between his teeth, watching the outline of Sasuke's body blur away into a bloodstained sunset.
Jiraiya supposes he should be glad that Kakashi is finally finding it worth his while to personally train Naruto—Kami knows the boy has been slavering for his attention for years—but in truth, it just makes him slightly unsettled.
And okay, a little jealous.
Because complain as he might that Naruto is a terrible student, that he is too slow and pigheaded—this and that and a million things in between—he has somehow grown to consider shouldering the pedagogic responsibility for the boy something of a… privilege. Or, more accurately, an entitlement. This madness is, surely, the first sign of senility.
He tells himself that this feeling has roots in benevolent concern, that having already poured so much of his effort into the venture, he damn well has a right to see to it that it comes to fruit. And it's not like he can help being curious, what with a drained-but-happy Naruto buzzing around every day after training with absurd remarks like "Kakashi-sensei showed me how to find out my element! I'm a Wind-type!" and "How come you never did cool things like that?"—all of which make Jiraiya puke a little in his mouth and prevent him from enjoying his sake.
It is thanks to this fortuitous curiosity that he just happens to be in the vicinity of the training ground—hovering in the shadowed branches of a flowering chestnut, to be precise—on the night that Naruto stumbles clumsily out of a handstand into a dead collapse after a twelve-hour training binge.
Jiraiya is beside the unconscious boy in a blink, his mind in mutiny like a crotchety old man (that he isn't) about stupid kids who didn't know their own limits and irresponsible adults sleeping soundly elsewhere. It is only much later that he realizes this could well be a scene that might have happened at anytime during the three years Naruto was training under his tutelage.
He feels the boy's forehead and jerks his hand back, scalded. Naruto is burning up, sweating puddles, and Jiraiya can practically smell the fever on his quick, shallow breaths. Then he remembers that the day has been hot and humid, with the dark threat of storm hanging on the steel-cloud horizon like a palpable tang—he can taste it on his skin (and in his bones, but he would never admit to that). The change in the wind bodes ill for careless children who go capering about heedlessly in the sun.
Turning to face the ill-tempered sky, he utters a (deliberately loud) curse before making for Naruto's apartment with said dimwit draped over one shoulder. Before long, he is flicking uselessly at broken light-switches and navigating his way through what seems like an organic forest of moldy old ramen packages, trying to procure some hot water and a washcloth that isn't too full of holes.
As he is wiping down Naruto's sweat-streaked face, the boy half-opens his out-of-focus eyes and cracks his dry lips into a goofy, fever-induced grin. Says dreamily, "I'm goin' to be Hokage."
Jiraiya snorts. "Of course you are, kid. Of course you are."
Naruto knows Jiraiya is fond of him for his own reasons, all of which are beyond his limited reasoning. That fondness sometimes leads him to believe that there must be something more to himself than his schizophrenic hair and his terrible personality and his inability to think anything through before rushing headfirst into danger or total humiliation.
But he also knows that sometimes, when Jiraiya looks at him after having plied himself silly with alcohol, that he doesn't really see him at all. Rather, he is looking right through him, or else staring at a space some three feet above his head, perhaps imagining the outline of Naruto's body uncurling and reshaping into something different (more familiar). Maybe the old man doesn't even realize he's doing it, but Naruto always knows. He's seen the pictures. He's aware of the resemblances.
And he hates it, hates every moment that the Sannin talks to him like he's someone else.
He wants to be nobody's ghost. Least of all Jiraiya's. If anyone should acknowledge his existence (that he means something… to somebody), it should be his teacher.
He thinks it must be a little ironic—that he isn't pleased, isn't more flattered (after all, He was a Hero, and he'll never be that). Instead of trying to emulate the man whose face he has stolen, or better him as he did when he was younger, he trudges in the opposite direction and exaggerates the differences to their limits, magnifying every little ridiculous thing that makes him uniquely him and not Him. He thinks sometimes that Jiraiya, brilliant as he is, must see through it effortlessly—surely he doesn't actually believe Naruto can be that dim, can be that slow-witted, that bumbling. But by and by, when the act continues to go unnoticed and he's sure the older man isn't going to call him out on his put-on blunders, he begins to think that… maybe… That Jiraiya might be smart, but he isn't very wise.
But Naruto is forgetting the most important thing: that for Jiraiya, ghosts can walk both amongst the living and the dead.
For all that he calls himself a great lover of beauty, Jiraiya thinks it's tellingly informative that a disproportionate number of his lovers are only on paper. These beautiful faces tucked between neatly bound pages and sealing wax spines are always willing to die (and be reborn) at his slightest whims, and more importantly, are always available. Fictional loves are a priori preferable, because they can never leave you, and can never be lost.
That is one lesson that no amount of effort on his part has managed to pound into Naruto's abnormally thick skull.
So even though he can't afford (allow himself) to stay, he makes certain to be around often enough. Naruto is a resilient kid, Jiraiya thinks, and he has been known to accept unusual hardships and bounce back from all of them safely (if not scarlessly), but one of these days...
Broken bones are easily fixed, but not hearts, for hearts are fragile.
Thus, it is this sentiment and the theory of novel-format lovers that Jiraiya finds himself thinking of the night after Naruto's eighteenth birthday, when said teen stumbles into one of Jiraiya's usual haunts—drunk, trembling, and in the lowest throes of depression, having arrived in that state because, "Sakura-chan broke up with me."
Jiraiya casts his mind around until it settles on the correct face—albeit a vague and hazy one—that of the pretty pink-haired teammate his student somehow managed to hoodwink into agreeing to go steady with him something like half a year before. In any case, the Sannin wisely decides that Naruto's red-rimmed eyes can only indicate either one of two things: that he has been drinking substandard alcohol, or, more dangerously, that he still cares for aforementioned girl. Very, very much.
Having come to such a conclusion, Jiraiya does the only sensible thing left to do, and buys the boy another drink.
"Is it really that bad?"
"She's getting married, Ero-sennin!" moans Naruto, knocking back his sake with alarming speed and alacrity. Jiraiya winces. Ouch.
He tries again. "At least she's not marrying Sasuke, right?"
And the moment the words leave his mouth, he realizes it's exactly the wrong thing to say, because Naruto levels him with a bleak, bleak stare, and his mouth actually trembles.
"What? Don't tell me that she is!" The last he heard of the younger Uchiha, he was rumored to have already given up his body to Orochimaru. This memory has stuck in his mind with remarkable clarity only because he is still nursing the black eye sustained while trying to pry Naruto's hands off the hapless messenger's throat.
"Of course not!" snaps Naruto. "But…well…that's sort of the problem."
Faced with such impeccable logic, what can an old man do but raise his eyebrow and take another sip of sake?
"I mean," Naruto continues, "I always thought she was waiting for him—even when she agreed to go out with me—that she would never give up hope." He pauses for a long time, and then squares Jiraiya with a look, eyes glittering and unbearably bright. Quietly, asks, "Why would she give up on Sasuke like this, eh, old man?"
And the thing is… Jiraiya doesn't know how to answer that.
Instead of the theory of novel-format lovers, he thinks of all the years that he knew Orochimaru preceding his betrayal (over three decades that no one but him thinks of anymore) and all the times his teammate snatched him back from death's sulfurous jaws. Ten years ago, if someone had told him with perfect certainty that Orochimaru could be saved, what would he have said?
Sarutobi-sensei might have entertained that possibility, and Jiraiya sees it now, mirrored in Naruto's still too-bright eyes.
So he drops his gaze and says, "Cut your hair, brat."
Naruto is, naturally, a little pole-axed. "What?"
"I said you should cut your hair. Proper men should never leave their hair to grow past their shirt collars. It's no wonder you can't hold on to a girlfriend to save your life."
He waits, anxious, and doesn't breathe normally until he hears Naruto laugh (although it's more a bitter, outward rush of oxygen) and say sarcastically, "Like you're one to talk."
That's all the cue Jiraiya needs. He drops into one of his theatrical poses and begins bellowing melodramatically at the top of his lungs, "When you are as good-looking as I, the Great Jiraiya-sama, women will willingly flock to you whether or not your hair is long and unkempt!"
With these little gestures, he fights off all the terrible possibilities threatening to consume his student, and for the moment, the dark tides abate. They're not drowning. Not yet.
For years to come, whenever he leaves Konoha on a mission, Naruto still thinks sometimes that he will meet so many people, so many new faces to laugh with, to sing to, to share a drink with on a cold winter night… but not one of them will ever remind him to cut his hair—that men shouldn't leave their hair to grow so long past their collars.
It is how he remembers that, even when he is wading through a sea of men, he is still alone.
The older their acquaintance grows, the less they seem to resemble student and teacher, and more like old friends, unspoken and undemanding.
Jiraiya still, as he always has, watches Naruto with a determined wariness. He pays close attention to the changes and patterns of his student's life, fearful of them for no reason he can particularly discern. Naruto's never made a point to share with his teacher any of the things in his life, but Jiraiya partakes in them nonetheless, and over the years, he's watched his student grow from a scrawny, brittle-fingered boy to an upstanding, firm-jawed young man.
The Naruto he has come to know is not a handsome man—Jiraiya's never ceased to be amazed how such familiar angles and lines have shifted and molded with time into a completely different face—and he seems distinctly less so at this particular moment with both his cheeks hideously ballooned with miso ramen. But he is a good man—an unforgettable man, with a heart like the tall, sheer summer sky—and a good shinobi, to boot.
But no matter how much of the work is already done, Jiraiya never lets himself forget for one moment that he is still—and will forever be—Naruto's teacher.
That is why he gives him the book.
"What the hell is this?" Naruto asks, fingering the yellowed, dog-eared covers with unfeigned curiosity.
"Are you blind?" Jiraiya returns. "It's a novel, stupid!"
The young man stares at him incredulously. "I didn't know you wrote things other than porn."
Jiraiya looks away, exhaling another puff of bluish smoke from the end of his pipe. "It's my first book. Read it."
So Naruto does. With skepticism at first, laced with curiosity, then burgeoning interest, and before he knows it, he has been swept away, left utterly windblown and breathless, like all the flesh have been stripped from his body and the marrow his bones.
For Jiraiya's first book is brilliant: completely raw and brutal and unpretentious, devoid of the soft, pleasing temperance in traditional romance, or the crude bawdiness in his prose now. Naruto has been reading it religiously, in ten-page successions, having to put it down at intervals just to catch his breath. The sheer intensity makes something heavy splinter painfully within the walls of his heart, and at the end of three weeks, he hasn't even managed to cover a third of the novel.
One day, there surfaces a phrase that both intrigues and puzzles him, to the point that he doesn't realize he's been sitting motionlessly with the closed book tucked under one arm for hours, until the sound of a polite cough makes him look up and into one twinkling grey eye.
"Yo," replies the Jounin casually. "That's some interesting reading material you have there, Naruto-kun."
"It's Ero-sennin's," Naruto answers distractedly, and then, in a sudden rush of memory, quickly adds, "You read a lot of his stuff, Kakashi-sensei. Have you ever read this?"
"Yes," replies Kakashi in a controlled voice. "Though I prefer to stick to the bestsellers myself."
"Well," Naruto goes on, carefully weighing his words, "why doesn't he write like this anymore?"
Instead of answering, the older man casts his gaze into the dark brambles of tree branches twisting wildly above their heads, the dappling shadows of an early dusk, and hums a spontaneous tune softly under his breath. Then he lowers his head to favor Naruto with an amused look, and says, "There comes a time in our lives when we're all forced to accept that we can't paint our portraits with blood forever, Naruto."
Naruto's confusion must have shown on his face, because Kakashi chuckles lightly before continuing, "All you really need to know is that this," he pauses to lift the book from Naruto's loosened grip, "This, here, is power."
"Power," Naruto echoes, and even as he does his mind is already uncurling in a whirl of frightful thoughts, and he wonders suddenly if it's still there—hidden beneath an exterior of lechery and melodrama, the disillusionment—and whether it can be wielded at will, like a katana that only serves the hand of its creator, all at once beautiful and deadly and art.
Mostly, he wonders what it would be like to unearth that power.
"Now tell me, Naruto-kun," asks Kakashi, holding the book out to him. "What is it that's gotten you in such an inquisitive mood today?"
Silently, Naruto takes the book from his teacher and cracks it open to a particularly well-thumbed page, where a single line stands out, heavily underlined and highlighted in color.
It reads: Metaphors are dangerous, and are not to be trifled with, for a single metaphor can give birth to love.
Jiraiya can't remember the exact moment he realizes that he can't protect Naruto from heartbreak forever, but he knows it's somewhere around the time that their conflict with Otogakure comes to an end and Uchiha Sasuke returns to Konoha.
In any case, there is a clear and distinct memory of a shifty-eyed Naruto shuffling into their rendezvous with the look of a man who has a load to get off his chest, about three days after a judicial panel made up of Fire Country nobles cleared the younger Uchiha of all treason charges formerly attributed to his name. Tsunade was outvoted twelve to one, and seethed on said injustice over many jars of sake afterwards, although Jiraiya had taken great pains to caution her beforehand not to be at all surprised by the amount of influence a name, even a tarnished one, could wrought in the world of the upper class.
"Are you sorry for what happened with Orochimaru?" Naruto asks without preamble before Jiraiya's afternoon greeting has even properly left his mouth.
The Sannin frowns. What kind of a question is that to ask? He can't very well come out and tell the boy that in order to spare his teammate it was inevitable that his own be killed, now can he?
And is he sorry? Not in the least. Ten years ago, perhaps, but all that now is a matter of no consequence. Nothing but collateral damage, so to speak.
"Because what I did—I don't know if you understand—but I had to do that," Naruto goes on in rush, as if he weren't at all aware of the intervening pause. "To save Sasuke, I mean. It's what I've always wanted all these years… him—I mean, that."
And there's something in the boy's tone that sends alarm bells clamoring urgently in Jiraiya's head. Once upon a time, he came to the steadfast conclusion that Naruto's obsession with Sasuke lay not in the Uchiha himself, but in the idea of him, the idea of getting him back, the thrill of the pursuit. He was certain that once the task in question was accomplished, the fixation would fade and Naruto would move on to focus his exhaustive energy on something else.
It's time, he thinks, to reconsider that claim.
The theory of novel-format lovers rises suddenly to the forefront of his mind, and Jiraiya finds it absolutely imperative that this time around, the lesson must stick.
But then Naruto smiles and turns his gaze into the sky, a painfully earnest look of happiness lightening his face and smoothing out the sharpening features, and in a breathless voice, bright-eyed and intoxicated with discovery, says, "It's strange, but I find it hard to believe it's real sometimes."
Jiraiya can't for his life remember the lesson he wants to teach Naruto at this precise moment.
Instead, he will remember this as the moment that his student teaches him that letting go doesn't have to be the most painful thing ever.
And so he does, and learns to turn a blind eye when Naruto sometimes turns up late on the training ground with glaring kiss-marks on his collarbones, finger-shaped bruises on his arms—once: the purple ring of a bite on his shoulder blade where his shirt slipped.
In time, he even learns to stop waiting for the moment to come when he will have to pick up the broken pieces and somehow try to put them back together. Eventually, he goes back to a life where he frequents roadhouses every night and writes awful romance and smokes too much and sleeps in the arms of loose women wearing lurid makeup, always feeling bereft and ceaselessly slipping. With no catalyst, there is no more reason to change.
And the worst thing of all, Jiraiya knows, is that this could be the life he leads for the rest of it all, because he has already become so used to it.
But in the fall of that year, the news comes that the Chuunin Umino Iruka has been killed by rogue shinobi on a standard scroll-delivery assignment, and then all hell breaks loose.
In the aftermath, there is nothing left but damage control.
It goes something like this:
"Oh god, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Somebody has to be."
"Why? You people can't even leave a man to the last shred of his dignity?"
"It's not your dignity that's at stake here. And don't kid yourself. You don't want to be alone."
Insert pregnant pause.
Rinse, lather, repeat as needed.
"I saw the Uchiha kid lurking around the corner. Why isn't he here, hovering around being broody and useless? Emotional support and all that."
"We ended it, haven't you heard?"
"My sincerest condolences. I won't say I told you so."
"Right. Thanks for sparing my tender feelings. But seriously, Ero-sennin. Emotional support? Sasuke?"
"Yeah. Not like you're much better at it."
"On the contrary, I, the Great Jiraiya-sama, am most skilled and experienced in the matters of the heart. To demonstrate, I will allow you to ask me any question tonight."
"No shit? Anything?"
"Alright then. Why do you smoke so freakin' much? Is it any good?"
"Not even slightly. With every mouthful of smoke exhaled, I'm distinctly aware of how many respiratory cells I am killing. With every inhalation, I count the rising probability of developing cancer."
"But what's life without a little masochism?"
"Right. Whatever. Oh! Have you ever slept with any of your teammates?"
"Oh c'mon, you said anything!"
"Anything but that."
"Don't use such big words, you might hurt yourself."
"If you start crying, brat, I'm going to have to gag you."
"Nah, it's just… When you said that… He used to do that too, you know? Scold me… just like that."
Shuffle. Flint. Lit pipe.
"I won't. But you should get some sleep. We can talk again tomorrow."
"You're different in the daytime."
"He was the first person, you know? To acknowledge me, I mean. The first person…"
"I know, kid."
"Don't call me kid."
"That's right. You're going to be Hokage, aren't you?"
"Alright then, Hokage-sama. Get some sleep."
Naruto wakes the next morning to a sun-filled bedroom and the sound of a bird's wings outside his window. He finds a puffy-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror, twin telltale tracks staining his cheeks, and nothing in his head but a clear and strangely weightless memory of a checkered handkerchief and a pair of broad, scar-rough hands.
"You used to laugh more often," Jiraiya muses aloud one day without much rhyme or reason.
Naruto stops moving suddenly, his kunai poised at eyelevel (he is training, always training so hard these days, that sometimes his fingers go numb in the middle of the night), and turns to face the older man completely. Jiraiya is sitting splay-legged on one of the tree stumps that litters the edge of the training ground. The late afternoon sun pauses behind his head on its arc of descent, the slanting rays of light coloring his white hair soft gold, forming an impromptu halo.
"That's only because I used to believe that everything good would always remain," Naruto says vehemently. "I can't very well go on believing that now can I?"
Jiraiya says nothing in reply, and in the stifling silence that follows, Naruto has time to think about what he's just said. It's not without truth. He isn't fifteen anymore, and if there's one thing he knows now, it's that time always runs out (if it has not already).
"You're too young to be losing faith in a moment of crisis, boy."
"Yeah well that's the problem isn't it?" he retorts, snapping his eyes away. "Faith hasn't done me any good. What is faith, exactly? Loving and believing without ever questioning the reason? It's nothing but empty belief!"
His words fall onto a rising gust of wind that carries them high into the darkening sky. The leaves on the trees nearby dance lazily, tinted bright and autumn red. It's the season of harvest.
"Answer me this," Jiraiya says after a moment. "What does it mean to be faithful?"
"To accept," he mumbles, almost inaudibly. "I don't know. To believe."
"Precisely. You say that faith is empty belief, but have you ever thought that it is exactly that quality of unconditionality, of believing without asking for anything in return, that makes it comforting?"
The air has gone still suddenly, no longer stirring the dry dust on the ground in little cloudy puffs. Naruto stares at his feet in silence. Jiraiya is still talking.
"That's all that faith is: something to comfort you in moments of vulnerability, to make you feel that you're not alone. It is necessary, because for most of our lives we are facing our travails alone. Now, what is the opposite of faith?"
"I don't know. Disbelief?"
"No," Jiraiya says, shaking his head. "Not disbelief, but unbelief. The first is natural, the second willful. And what does it mean to be an unbeliever?"
Naruto feels his throat go dry suddenly. "To despair."
"Yes. Don't ever stop believing, Naruto."
The waning sun chooses that moment to slip fluidly behind the wall of trees framing the horizon, casting the world in silver dusk. The wind begins to pick up, rustling heaps of dry leaves in a low susurrus, and it's difficult to make out Jiraiya's expression in the dappled shadow.
("This, here, is power.")
"How are you getting on with that book?"
He swallows hard once. Twice. Eases his hitched breaths (like a corpse coming to life). "I'm getting there."
"That's good to know."
Like all writers of fictions, Jiraiya is perpetually occupied with the idea of the perfect romance. The notion absorbs him even during the ongoing war (his third). He believes that it is the secret love, the deep and burning but silent desire that constitutes that epic quality of a grand romance. A want which remains untold, even at the end of one's life, will still be teeming and undulating restlessly, and with each passing reminder (an old path, an old face…), will twist the old knife as eagerly as ever.
Naruto, apparently, has other ideas.
"Are you out of your puny mind?" roars Jiraiya, his long white mane fairly bristling with his outrage.
Naruto winces, retracing in his head the words he's just spoken, and says in his best placating voice, "You know, that's not exactly the reaction I was going for."
They are patrolling the outer village walls: monotonously pacing up and down miles upon miles of desolate palisade, and feeling the desperation in its solemn face staring starkly back at them. The smoke-laced mist that hangs constantly in the air smells heavily of charred wood and the used remnants of exploding tags. There is another smell, wetter—redder—and it seethes through men's nostrils and down into their failing hearts, squeezing them each beat by beat.
Jiraiya, after a few minutes of silent fuming, seems to have regained his bearing. "Let me get this straight. We are under siege. Our forces are thinning desperately, the Akatsuki have the village surrounded and are practically pressing their ugly noses into our front doors, and you think this is a good time to bring something like that up?"
When put in that manner it does seem a little… "Well, I've never claimed to be the most timely of shinobi, now have I?"
"Just the most surprising," Jiraiya murmurs. "Kami."
"Even so," Naruto presses on tentatively, "won't you at least consider it?"
"There is nothing to consider," snaps the Sannin. "You are clearly and very deeply demented, and I have half a mind to have you locked up in the hospital right this instance!"
"That's Jiraiya-sensei to you, still. Dare I ask how much thought did you even put into this before you went and sprung your lunacy upon me?"
"First and foremost, enough with your histrionics. I've known you far too long for them to work. And second, I have put a lot of thought into my proposal, for your information."
"Shows what good thinking does you," the older man mutters darkly. More somberly, "You don't know what it is that you're asking of me, kid."
Naruto has been patient. Up till now. "For the last time, I'm not a kid! And I'm not asking you to do anything—nothing except to think about it."
Jiraiya says nothing. He has stopped dead in his track, and is gazing intently at the tract of milky, mournful winter skies above their heads as if his naked eyes could pierce the thick cold mist and fathom the divine movements of the heavens.
"Well, won't you do that at least?" Naruto asks again, his heart hurtling painfully like kamikaze birds into the walls of his ribcage. "Think about it?"
There is another long pause. Presently, a deep sigh. And then: "Ask me again if we both live through this."
It's not as if Jiraiya doesn't know exactly what's going on.
Because he does. He hasn't lived this long to be taken in by an absurd trick like that, so as far as he's concerned, Fate can take those little cosmic jokes of hers and shove them where she sees fit.
He still remembers being young (younger than any sane person has any business remembering) and having the strangest wishes. Like wishing to be Hokage, or to love an old man. Not old like Sarutobi-sensei, whose flaying glares and iron ways sometimes return to foil Jiraiya in his pursuits of passion for years to come. Old like his grandfather on his mother's side—whom he can still remember—the only member of his family who was never a shinobi. His grandfather was already very old when he was a kid (unlike Tsunade's grandfather, and that's why hers is a completely different set of memories), and what he remembers is a man who was always leisurely in his steps, gentle in his speech, quietlike and with a heart like the tall, sheer summer sky.
His clearest memory of his grandfather is the way he used to ride his old, rickety bicycle, that awkward, stooping posture as he rounded the curve that led into their picket-fenced house. Burned into his mind's eye are the beads of sweat rolling down the lines of his grandfather's weathered face, soaking his sun-faded jacket. In all his life, his grandfather never knew anything of chakra and secret scrolls, and in this way, he seemed to Jiraiya like an antique store Buddha, a magician in exile, destitute and not a little antiquated, but enchanting all the same.
Childhood dreams, like soap bubbles in the sky, are all for one reason or another soon forgotten. When he arrived at the beckoned gates of puberty, he was somewhat startled by the realization that old people were much too wrinkled, much too sad and age-speckled to love. At the same time, there were boys and girls to be had, all sleek and smooth and straight-backed, pale and pretty enough to melt the iciest of hearts.
So he suspects that Naruto will come to the same realization soon enough, albeit late and a little backward (he never makes things easy, does he?). Soon, some shining wonder will flit by and sweep him off his feet, and he'll forget all about the deep waters of an old romance, full of poetry and wistful regret…
But Naruto thinks only of the time when he was seven years old and had only one egg left in the egg-box of his fridge (he'd run out of cup ramen too, and wouldn't get anymore till Monday). One day, he got very hungry, and so set about making hardboiled egg. He took the one egg out of the refridgerator and put it in a pan half filled with tap water and turned on the gas stove, and tried very hard to be patient while it cooked (it got very tiresome sometimes: he was ever such an energetic child).
When the steam came rolling out off the stove in wispy white clouds, he got ever so excited. He took the egg out of the pan (nearly burning his tiny little hands in the scalding water) and prepared a small dish of fish sauce for dipping. Puffing his cheeks to blow on the egg—and wasn't he a sight to see—but finally his hot, eager little fingers could go about picking off the shell.
He remembers opening his tiny mouth in a perfect, dismayed 'o' when the egg broke apart in the palm of his hand in a stream of murky liquid.
He'd always liked his eggs hardboiled, solid all the way to the (oh so delicious) honey yellow center of the yolk, and he'd worked so hard and waited so patiently and he couldn't understand why it didn't work this time, and it was like his seven years old heart was being crushed right along with that sad little undercooked egg.
After he had angrily tossed the handful of jumbled yolk and broken shell into the trash, he went to vent to Iruka-sensei (and it's alright, he can allow himself to think about him now, and maybe even forgive himself, a little). And Iruka-sensei said:
"Next time, you have to remember that refrigerated eggs take longer to cook than normal eggs. You have to take them out of the cold box first and leave them out on the counter for a bit before boiling them, you silly goose."
He's never forgotten that lesson—and all the rest of them. And Jiraiya, he thinks, must be a little like that refrigerated egg, having been in the cold for so long that it takes a long time for him to open up to this newfound warmth. But it's alright—Naruto will wait as long as it takes, and when the time comes, he will warm him all the way to his honey yellow center.
There are three reasons why Jiraiya hates drinking with Tsunade:
First, she has a higher tolerance than him.
Second, she almost always runs out early and leaves him to foot the staggering bill.
Third, and most distressing of all, she never asks him to drink unless there is something that she wants.
The bar she picks reeks of greasy fried squid. Jiraiya sits perched on the edge of his high stool, his mind abuzz with speculations over what Tsunade is going to talk about this time, and whether or not he will be able to get a word in edgewise to marginalize the damage to his life and limb. The answer he comes up with regarding the latter is 'No'.
Next to him, Tsunade is lounging comfortably in her seat, with one hand cradling Ton-Ton to her bosom and the other pruning a dish of sake, looking for all the world as though she weren't the leader of a great ninja village in the midst of one of their bitterest wars. Or a woman with a hidden motive, full of steely resolve and out to get her best friend in some as yet unknown but doubtlessly unpleasant manner.
"Why did you bring the pig?" Jiraiya finds himself asking, his voice raspy and oddly high-pitched.
"Because Shizune would find me much sooner had I left Ton-Ton with her," answers the Hokage nonchalantly, taking a sip of alcohol, smacking her lips when the rice whiskey burns its familiar path down her tongue and throat. "And I would hate to have to cut this conversation short."
Jiraiya raises his eyebrow at that, feigning amazement. "And what might have prompted this level of dedication in a person such as yourself?"
"You, Jiraiya, are a coward," she says simply, her voice growing fierce, the sudden heat making Jiraiya choke a little on his own drink.
"That's nothing new. After all, I'm not naturally endowed with freakish strength to get me out of tight situations like some people. And here I thought you had something profound you wished to impart upon cowardly me."
"Not only are you a coward," she continues blithely, not taking the easy bait, "you're also an idiot with a chronic case of denial."
"And what, pray tell, am I in denial of?"
"Happiness?" he echoes, trying to sound skeptical without incurring her wrath. "If this is in anyway about…"
"Yes," Tsunade says, nodding. Her eyes are narrowed, the glimmering amber harsh and unyielding beneath a thin curtain of long lashes, and Jiraiya is focusing on the details because the big picture is too big to wrap his mind around. He takes another sip of sake, feeling utterly, indescribably surreal.
When he finds his voice again, he says, "You can't possibly be serious."
The look on her face attests that she is anything but not serious. That's what he was afraid of.
"Tsunade," Jiraiya moans, dismayed. "The lot of you are out of your goddamn mind. Sixty and twenty-two…"
"Is a gap," Tsunade goes on, absently stroking one of Ton-Ton's silky ears, "not as unbreachable as you may think."
Jiraiya looks into her face again, and thinks—really thinks—about the situation they're in, and realizes that there is one and only one reason why the Hokage would be taking her assistant's pet-pig out on her drinking trip, let alone fondling it with such uncharacteristic tenderness.
"You, Tsunade-hime," he chuckles fondly, shaking his head, "are indeed much braver than I."
She pretends to bristle at the nickname—for old times' sake, for old times' sake—and smirks indulgently into the rim of her cup, in that somewhat sly manner he's always found so distractingly attractive since they were kids. "With the right brand of persuasion, bravery becomes secondary."
Jiraiya smiles grimly and forcefully knocks back his still half-full dish of bitter sake, not yet realizing at the moment that this is the last time he will ever drink with Tsunade.
Jiraiya doesn't remember anything from the last battle except bone-weariness and the fact that he shouldn't be so relieved, not when Naruto has his eyes closed and a hole in his chest and smiles with blood on his lips.
Once he has made certain that the young man will in fact live through his near mortal (too close, it was too close) injury, he goes back to his lodging and packs up his meager belongings and disappears from Konoha in the dead of night.
By the time Naruto comes to from his coma ten days later, it is already too late to say goodbye.
In the year that Jiraiya is away (not gone, never gone), Naruto misses him in the way that a creature misses one of its own kind (he being the only other). He doesn't miss the older man as a person so much as he misses a manner of communicating (reading each other's soul), misses having someone who can hear the sound of his heartbeats (there used to be another, but he is dead and his grave is green with clover come spring).
He remembers a time back in the early days when they were still traveling together (that age before memory, before everything else), when he and Jiraiya stopped for lunch on a river bank one day. They sat among a group of resting road-workers, the summer sun beating hotly down their backs.
Naruto asked, is the sun this hot everywhere we go? Don't be dumb, Jiraiya replied, we're just going further south, that's why. Silent for a moment, and then Jiraiya said, something smells really good around here. Yeah, Naruto said, nodding, kinda like Tekkadon. But I don't like this smell, he added after a pause, it smells too poor. Jiraiya was amused by that. What smells rich to you, he asked. Miso ramen, of course, Naruto laughed. The older man called him an idiot, and they were just arguing back and forth about which dish smelled rich and which didn't when one of the workers turned to Jiraiya, perplexed, and asked, "How can you two stand to sit out here all day long without saying a word like that?"
That innocent comment brought Naruto up short: he hadn't realized they hadn't been speaking.
So what Naruto misses most of all is the way that, without opening his lips, he could sometimes read all the thoughts in his teacher's head (an accidental telepathy). There is a clamoring storm there, the raging wind whipping relentlessly into a withered heart criss-crossed with wounds, some old and scarred over, others gaping and bleeding still. There is madness there, but also… hope.
He wonders if—and how—Jiraiya would miss him.
Jiraiya returns to Konoha the day before Naruto's inauguration ceremony as Rokudaime Hokage is due to take place, and Naruto, trapped in his new office all day with the paperwork the malevolent advisers are all too eager to bestow upon him—"Off to a brilliant start!" said the bloodsuckers—doesn't hear about it until dusk has fallen.
When he does, though, he is all but ready to upturn the very foundations of the village to find the older man. And is, thus, considerably underwhelmed to run into him at the first lodging establishment he seeks out (and a notably respectable one, at that).
Jiraiya greets him at the door of his suite with strange politeness, all business no smile, and explains this curtness by indicating that Naruto has dropped in while he's still in the process of unpacking. Seeing as Jiraiya has always traveled with only a light pack, this explanation seems highly unconvincing.
"What have you been doing for the last year?" Naruto asks by way of dispersing the thickening silence that has descended upon the room.
"This and that," is the vague reply. "Thinking, mostly."
"Thinking?" This is it. "What about?"
Or not. "Oh."
The Sannin seems determined not to meet his eyes, so Naruto heaves a mental sigh and allows his own gaze to wander (and tries not to count the new lines that have been carved into his teacher's face—the world tearing him away from Naruto bits by bits). Then he notices a large birdcage in one corner of the room, covered in dark blue cloth.
"What is that?"
"It's your inauguration gift, Rokudaime-sama," answers Jiraiya, a strange light passing through his eyes. "Take a look."
Without a word, Naruto approaches the cage, curiosity weighing down his steps, and pulls off the covering to find…
It is indeed that water bird, ink black from head to tail feathers, with the sole exception of the wings, which are ash grey like the skin of a November morning sky.
Years ago, while he and Jiraiya were passing through a marsh country on their constant travel (that place where he once got lost and was found by a kind-eyed ghost), Naruto saw one of these creatures flying across an endless stretch of rice fields zigzagged with canals. He didn't think there was anything particularly remarkable about the bird, until he heard its cry.
"What a mournful sound," he remembers exclaiming, halting in his track to gaze after the pinprick outline of wings growing rapidly smaller. "A cry like that must pierce the clouds!"
And Jiraiya, puffing away at his perennial hornpipe, laughed and said, "Of course it's mournful. The gods created the coucal and gave it a pair of eyes as red and sad as though it's been crying its soul out since the day it was born. When the coucal sings, the sound issues from its throat, and that's why it's deep and warm—as if that were the bird's soul running out like water through its beak. Those other chirruping flashbirds, with their chirping songs that come from their mouths, they're not as true."
"Just like people, in a way," he added quietly after a moment, a stream of bitter smoke rolling off his tongue with the last syllable.
The rueful cry of the coucal brings Naruto's attention back to the moment, stepping away from the world of memories as a sleepwalker emerges from night's puddle, and as he stares intently into the blood-colored eyes of the bird, he remembers exactly what it was that he wanted to say.
"I've finished the book you gave me."
A flash of interest makes itself apparent on Jiraiya's face for a fleeting moment. "And?"
"And… love is born from a metaphor, and you are a refrigerated egg!"
Though Naruto doesn't know it yet, his quirky runoff sentence is going to change both of their lives, for better or worse.
For the moment, he is simply glad to have coaxed a grudging smile out of the older man.
Then Jiraiya is rummaging through his half-emptied travel pack and after some time, produces another book and hands it to Naruto.
"Another gift," he says with perfect solemnity.
"What is it?"
"It's the sequel to the one I gave you last time. Read the inscription."
Naruto peels open the front cover carefully and leafs through the first few pages, eagerly breathing in the crisp scent of new paper (a scent which he has come to associate with the man standing before him), until he finds the right one.
The inscription of Jiraiya's newest book (that will also be his last) reads very simply: Yes.
The Hokage robe is unfailingly becoming on Naruto, Jiraiya decides, and well it should. The day of his inauguration is graced with such natural blessings as a warm, smiling sun and a perfect, cloudless patch of azure blue skies, the same color as his eyes. The general mood is a somber one—it is a year to the day of the final victory and there are women (men, too) in the waiting crowd with sad eyes and white ribbons pinned to their collars—but the reconstruction process is almost consummate and Konoha's children are ready to begin relearning how to be happy.
Jiraiya, too, is among them, for he is finally coming home to stay.
"The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we're too young to know."
A/N: It started out as a crazy idea, and turned into something… different. I think it has a lot to do with my own childhood regret, thinking that it would be so nice to marry an old man, to be a part of a romance so deep and sad it'd still me a little and make me… something more than a rambunctious girl with scabbed knees and too big dreams. I don't feel that way anymore, and I'm a little saddened by it—it's a way of thinking that growing up has changed.
Inspirations entirely musical. Obviously Peter Gabriel's quixotic little ditty "The Book of Love". Listen to it while you read. But thanks also go out to Damien Rice's "O" album, the bonus disc version. Best. Writing. Music. Ever. I've been giving much thought to the issue of love, doubt, and growing up (old) lately, and his material just seems to… fit. Oddly enough.
Oh, and "Love is born from a metaphor" is a direct quote from Milan Kundera.
This has unexpectedly turned out to be my favorite fic written to date.