Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
"You're awake, good. You were asleep for a long time." That familiar, unwelcome voice is what greets Jiraiya when he begins to come to. It isn't any one of the Peins, not as far as he can tell, but he does recognize it.
The last thing Jiraiya remembers, he is sinking, lower and lower, into water and darkness and the terrible pain in his back overtakes him and he succumbs to it. Now, there is nothing, no pain, no wounds; he even has his arm back.
Jiraiya stands up, and Uchiha Itachi stares up at him, disturbingly calm.
They are standing in a forest with a dense canopy, bright sunlight filtering in through small places. A beaten path lies in front of their feet.
Itachi looks just as he did in life, if quite a bit healthier. His face is smooth and quiet; his eyes don't give away secrets. But at the same time, he is different. His guard is lowered, he is calmer, more relaxed. He is not stiff and waiting for an attack, even though the man standing in front of him is a sworn enemy.
"Am I dead?" Jiraiya asks, looking around. The forest they're in certainly doesn't look like any in Ame no Kuni.
Jiraiya shoots the younger man a piercing glare, folding his arms across his chest. "If this is the afterlife, then why aren't you in Hell?" he asks challengingly.
Itachi smiles cryptically. "Hell is what you make of it. Shall we go?" His eyes turn towards the narrow path.
The afterlife isn't really what Jiraiya expects. He has never really thought of the afterlife at all, but he never expected it to look like the world he grew up in. He never expected it to look like the living realm.
There are no animals, he notices. There are no sounds of birds nor any sound of cracks on branches. A small, lazy breeze sweeps through to remind Jiraiya that this is not a dream.
As the sunlight begins to fade, Jiraiya notices wisps of smoke, or maybe dense air, floating across the path and through the trees. They fade in and out, through the corner of his eyes and between the trees, disintegrating as they move through foliage then reforming on the other side.
Itachi answers before he ever asks the question. "They are…spirits of the air, souls who never grounded in this world. They have no sense of anything. They know not where they are, who they are, nor what they are. They are merely air, floating through this life. They do not see us; they do not see any of this."
"Where are we going?" Jiraiya demands, glaring distrustfully at Itachi, who stares imperturbably back.
"The paths lead to different places every time we walk them. The destination is not fixed."
"And why are we walking?"
Itachi's steps make no sound on the ground of decaying leaves and soft soil. "So you can find a place."
Jiraiya's eyes narrow. "Come again?"
The young Uchiha doesn't miss a beat. "When a soul comes into this life undamaged, there is a place for them. To find it, they must walk the paths."
Jiraiya rolls his eyes. "Sounds like psychobabble to me." The light flickers, and he frowns. "What did you mean when you said the paths change?"
Dark eyes sweep over him momentarily, hollows in the face and utterly unreadable. The wind picks up for just a moment. "This world is different. The trees will stop soon. You'll see what I'm talking about."
The trees start to grow thinner and few between, and the grass grows thicker and more lush. The delicious smell rises to Jiraiya's nostrils, and despite himself, he smiles a little bit.
Finally, the trees break away entirely like waves upon a stony shore, and Jiraiya gapes at what he sees.
There is nothing but rolling hills, like the gentle roll of the sea in the darkness, with thick, soft grasses that sway under a refreshing breeze, as far as the eyes can see.
It can not possibly be full night yet; it was just light a few minutes ago. That is what Jiraiya is thinking, but that is not what is making his mouth fall slack in shock.
The stars and the moon shine so much more brightly. The darkness is still velvet black, but the former pinpricks of light seem much closer, and the moon is nearly three times its normal size, full as a woman's belly when she is nearing the ninth month of pregnancy, perfectly round and pristine in its whiteness. The full moon shines down on them both, as soft as a mother's touch on her newborn child.
"We are closer here."
They continue to walk, their path well-lit by the enormous moon. At one point, Jiraiya looks back to capture one final glimpse of the wild forest, and is shocked to discover that there are no trees behind him. Only hills.
Itachi catches his gaze and quickly explains. "The landscape shifts at times. Do not be alarmed by it."
They walk in silence. Itachi has nothing to say, and as long as there is no one talking to Jiraiya, he doesn't talk either. Not that he would want to talk to Itachi, anyway.
Abruptly, out of the comfortable silence of deep night, Itachi's soft voice rises and grates on his ears. "We will stop here. We can continue on in the morning."
As they settle on the grass, Itachi asks, "Is there anyone in particular you want to see? It will help in finding your place in this land."
Jiraiya has an immediate answer, jumping up through his throat. "Minato," Jiraiya affirms, his eyes going bright and his voice stern with determination. "I want to see Minato."
Itachi looks over at him, his mouth hanging open slightly. Or maybe it isn't; even with the moon and the fiery stars, the darkness is thick enough that it is hard to tell. "No," he whispers, and for some reason his voice sounds lost.
"What?" Jiraiya's voice rises belligerently as ire bubbles up in his chest. "What do you mean, no?!"
"You can not," Itachi murmurs, his eyes still wide, before he ducks his head and looks away. "Yondaime Hokage-sama is out of your reach, Jiraiya-sama. Where he is, you can not go."
Itachi picks himself up with a strange weariness and moves to a spot further away from Jiraiya on the steep slope of the grassy hillock, not bothering to sleep as he stares up at the stars. But he does not really see them; his eyes are glassy and blank, and Itachi does not seem to hear when Jiraiya moves too.
Jiraiya spends a little time looking at the stars too, before he goes to sleep, thinking of a scrappy little brat and a temperamental blonde woman.
The next morning is serenely sunny with white woolen clouds chasing each other across a tapestry of gleaming turquoise blue. The sun seems closer too, but it does not burn as hot. The day is as temperate as the time between spring and summer, not quite on either side.
They walk on at a pace comfortable for both, saying nothing to each other. They have nothing to say; Jiraiya is still a little angry at Itachi for refusing to let him see Minato, and Itachi is naturally taciturn.
The spirits of the air make one appearance, sometime around noon judging by the position of the sun, and Jiraiya pays more attention to them than is wise. They begin to form shapes, shapes he knows. They resemble people Jiraiya knew in life, and he stops and stares at them, feeling a deep, indefinable urge to go out and be with them.
But then a hand grips his shoulder, and Itachi is looking at him with a mixture of sympathy and some unease, though is voice is still perfectly, even woodenly even. "Do not dwell on the living. Nor on the dead you can not save. Keep to the path, and do not look at them."
Jiraiya takes a moment to respond, feeling strangely disjointed, and then nods agitatedly. "I'll remember that," he mutters distractedly. "Thanks."
Sometime in the afternoon, they come to the threshold of a great forest. This forest is clearly much older than the one they left the day before. Its trees are bigger and more gnarled, not like the ones of Konoha, but even older. The branches reach out towards them. The trees start abruptly, like a thick line starting out of nowhere. The branches stretch out to them like beckoning fingers, and it makes Jiraiya more than a little wary.
"There is a place inside of this forest," Itachi murmurs unnecessarily. "I doubt you will find your peace there, but it will be a place to rest for the night."
Jiraiya nods, and without a second thought they cross the brink of trees into the bristling forest.
"Jiraiya-sama? Is that you?" Even before he gets out of the trees into the small clearing, Jiraiya hears that bright voice, and even Itachi smiles a little bit to hear it.
The light is coming entirely from the small, merrily crackling fire that sends up golden and scarlet red sparks towards the canopy. Beyond that, there is inky darkness obscuring everything, and Jiraiya is sure that even in midday it is the same.
Uchiha Obito laughs and waves at him. Sitting on a log beside him, Rin waves too, smiling a little shyly. Jiraiya grins back at them before sitting down on another log. Itachi follows behind him ghostingly like a shadow with a will of its own.
Jiraiya feels happy, happier than he has been in a long time. Obito was thirteen when he died, and Rin, sixteen, and the difference in their ages is apparent, but it's been so long since Jiraiya's seen them and it's so good to see them both again, to see Obito laughing and smiling and see Rin restored to health, and Jiraiya can't help but feel happy.
"It's good to see you both," Jiraiya greets them enthusiastically. The only way it could be better would be if Minato were there too. Jiraiya looks down at that thought, small sadness and a sense of nostalgia swamping his throat. At the same time, he feels anger directed at Itachi. Why won't he just tell him where to find Minato? Why won't he lead him to his old student?
Obito, at least, has noticed none of this. He is instead peering intently at Itachi, with the air of someone recognizing another person he has not seen for a very long time. "Are you who I think you are?" he asks curiously. Itachi starts, and blinks at Obito. Obito takes this is an affirmation. "It is you! You're Itachi, my little cousin." He looks at Itachi again, eyes twinkling. "Though God knows you're hardly little anymore. You're nearly a foot taller than me."
Obito tries to introduce Itachi and Rin to each other; Rin says they've already met, and smiles at the other Uchiha, who politely nods to each of them. Jiraiya decides that neither Obito nor Rin know that Itachi is a mass murderer and a notorious missing nin, and for the sake of the peace of the fire and the night, he decides not to say anything. It's not worth ruining the peace and happiness of the camp fire.
"Well, it's pretty good to see you back in tip-top shape," Jiraiya tells Rin jovially, preferring not to mention what she had looked like just before her death.
She laughs ruefully. "Yes. Apparently being dead does wonders for your health. It's pretty ironic, but for me and Itachi-san over here, it's a good thing."
"Itachi-san?" Obito grins. "Why aren't you just calling him Uchiha-san, Rin?"
Rin rolls her eyes. "Because considering you're here, if I did that you just wouldn't be able to resist asking "Which Uchiha?" or saying "Yes?" even when it's clear I'm addressing Itachi. You've always been a big goofball, Obito."
"Hey!" Obito half-shouts, standing up and spreading his arms dramatically. "I'm not a big goofball!"
Rin smiles sweetly. "Then what are you?"
"I'm a gigantic goofball!"
It has the desired effect; Rin tips her head back and laughs.
"Who's much more comfortable about it now," Jiraiya mutters. Evidently Death does a whole lot for your outlook on life too; equally ironic, equally beneficial.
Jiraiya learns a few more things from Rin and Obito about the afterlife. "You may or may not have noticed, Jiraiya-sama, but you haven't gotten hungry or thirsty since you got here, right?"
When Jiraiya says he hasn't, Obito nods. "I didn't think so. Apparently you don't need food or water in the afterlife. The hot and cold doesn't affect you like it would in life either."
Rin takes up her old teammate's cue. "You can still feel pain." She picks up a sharp branch and draws it across the palm of her hand. "You still bleed…" The medic tips over her hand, and black rubies of blood drip out onto the ground "…you still hurt. You can't die, though. I mean, it's not like you can die twice."
Eventually, Itachi decides to go to sleep. He slips over a log and settles just beyond it. He doesn't sleep well, tossing and turning and murmuring words just too quiet to make out. Jiraiya tries to ignore him, feeling prickling on the back of his neck, and firmly tells himself that he is not feeling sorry for the Uchiha.
Once he's sure Itachi is asleep, Jiraiya starts to ask questions. "Okay you two, I need your help on something."
"What is it?"
"Well, I want to find out where Minato is, but this goon of a guide—" Jiraiya glares at the sleeping man "—of mine won't tell me where he is or how to get to him. Do either of you know where Minato is?"
Obito and Rin look at each other for a long time. Rin bites her lip. Finally, Obito speaks. "We…don't know where Sensei is, Jiraiya-sama."
Jiraiya groans, tipping his eyes towards the dark canopy. "Is there anything you can tell me?"
Obito twitches, and Rin digs her elbow into his ribs encouragingly. "Well, I…died before any of the rest of you, including Sensei. When he died, I waited for him to show up, but he never did." Obito shrugs helplessly, his eyes wide in his pale face.
Jiraiya frowns, a horrible suspicion creeping upon him. "He isn't still in the Shinigami's stomach, is he?"
"Oh, no, no!" Obito hastens to assure him, holding his hands up. "Sensei's definitely here, somewhere. I've just never been able to find him. I can't find him anywhere I look."
The Toad Sage grimaces. "Figures. Nothing ever goes my way, not even when I'm dead." Something doesn't make sense, though. A question nags at him, and Jiraiya wishes he could hear crickets chirping. "Wait a second. Obito, you didn't know Itachi was dead. How did you know when Minato died?"
Again, the two look at each other for a long time, tension palpable in every moment of silence. "Rin," Obito says slowly, "you explain this. You're better at explaining these things."
Rin's small hands fidget in her lap. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. You've got a better way of explaining—"
"Will one of you please just tell me what's going on?!" Jiraiya snaps.
"Alright," Rin leans forward, and the deep crimson cast from the fire puts deep shadows across the contours of her face, making her seem far older than her sixteen years. "The dead can watch the living, if they so choose."
"Shoot! Tell me what to do!" Jiraiya feels the pain of missing his living loved ones, particularly Naruto and Tsunade, especially keenly, and the chance to still be able to see what's happening to them isn't something he wants to pass up.
"You don't wanna do that, Jiraiya-sama," Obito says suddenly, grimness settling on his unnaturally still frame.
Rin's face grows pale and unhappy. "Obito's right. Watching the living will not make you happy, Jiraiya-sama. You watch them and grow frustrated, for the things you can not change, the things you can't keep them from doing and for what separates you from them. Watching them will put sorrow heavy on your shoulders, because you can't be with them.
"If you watch the living too long, if you dwell on them too much and your preoccupation with them grows too great, then you will find that you can't return to this world. You'll become what the living call a ghost, unable to be in either world for the tethers they have in both. And when all of your loved ones pass, you will linger on, alone in the darkness, until the day comes when you forget your very name and why you are even there." Something dark passes over Rin's face. "It nearly happened to me. You must move on."
Jiraiya grits his teeth and casts his eyes down into the fire, staring at a log glowing white with heat.
A small hand reaches out and touches his own. "I'm sorry, Jiraiya-sama." And he can tell she means it. "Watching the living can only hurt you."
"So you two are happy here?"
"Of course we are!" Obito seems almost offended that he has to ask. "We're just waiting for Kakashi to show up. We figure he'll probably either go to stay with his dad—" mention of Sakumo makes Jiraiya's stomach churn just a little bit "—or forget about us all together, the bastard—" Obito rolls his eyes tolerantly "—but we'd like it if he stopped off to visit us first."
"Cool your jets, Obito, I had to ask."
It is morning, though for the deep darkness Obito had to climb to the very top of an oak tree with a mass of tangled, reaching arms to see the pale dawn light. The only difference between night and day in that forest is that day is gloomy rather than pitch black.
"Come back and visit sometime," Obito shouts, as Jiraiya and Itachi start to walk down the path. "Rin and I could use the company!"
"And another thing!" Obito cups his hands around his mouth. "The places you go to when you walk on the path will look like places you've been in life. It'll keep doing that until you run out of places you've been."
That's the last Jiraiya sees of either of them before the trees swallow them up and he is alone with Itachi again.
Jiraiya and Itachi walk on, unimpeded except by a moldering log with a damp, earthy smell to it which they easily step over.
As they move through the gloom of the dark forest, Jiraiya stops to think. Why is Itachi helping him? Unless the Shinigami has a particularly twisted sense of humor, he can see no reason behind it. And if it weren't for the fact that no one can die in the afterlife, he'd be pretty wary about traveling with him too.
Jiraiya's mood turns gloomy as he thinks of Naruto. I hope that brat's okay. He's so danger-prone that if he's not in the hospital right now or having a fight with someone who wants to kill him I'll gladly slide a kunai through my ribs just to see what'll happen.
He stiffens as they come across a dingy, huddling mass beside the road. Jiraiya at first thinks it's a mound of leaves or soil, until he realizes with horror that it is a person. The person is huddled in a fetal position and trembling convulsively, face hidden between two skinny, massively grass-stained knees; the person has long hair that seems to have once been white, but is now so thoroughly caked with mud, soil and other muck (the disgusting concoction is dribbling down a back whose vertebra stick out like little mounds as well) as to appear a murky brown. Hands are visible, whose fingernails are long and twisted from lack of trimming, black from mud and exposure.
"What is this?" Jiraiya demands of Itachi, stepping back from the huddled person.
Itachi looks at him, his eyes opaque, and smiles chillingly. "Hell is what you make of it," he murmurs softly.
A deep cold puts its hand over Jiraiya's heart. "What do you mean by that?" he half-heartedly questions, not even half-wanting to hear the answer.
Itachi leans down and peers intently at the person (Jiraiya can not even determine gender), a strange gleam in his dark, glassy eyes. "You did not know this man in life, but I will tell you his story. His name is Kimimaro, and in life he was Orochimaru's most devoted follower."
Jiraiya looks closer at him, frowning in deep thought. "Naruto and Lee and Gaara from Sunagakure told me about him. He was the last of the Kaguya, a wielder of that clan's kekkei genkai."
"Yesss…" Itachi pauses, his voice suddenly as tight as a shamisen string set to snap yet as loose and slow as a blazing summer wind, and he forces out the next sentence with extreme difficulty. "The last of his clan." Then he shakes himself out of whatever fog he was under, and his eyes clear.
"How did he get like this?"
Itachi stands, and looks Jiraiya full in the eye. "Listen well, Jiraiya-sama. This is the folly of investing your soul in a fallible human being.
"Kimimaro was deeply devoted to Orochimaru, almost to the extent of religious zealotry, far more than what was wise. When you become devoted to something with the whole of your being, to the exclusion of all else, you shut your eyes to the whole world. And when you become irrevocably separated from the object of your devotion, you go blind. You live on in darkness and in doubt, blind to the world you forswore and aware only of your own pain, lost in a stormy sea with no lifeboat in sight."
Jiraiya snorts. "Serves him right."
That was evidently the wrong thing to say to Itachi. He whirls around, a fire lit in his eyes. "Do not scorn him! Pity him, rather. Yes, his Hell was of his own making, but he was blind to the danger he put himself in." Itachi looks around soberly. "This forest is the asylum of the unfortunate dead, those who exist as Kimimaro does."
"Then why are Rin and Obito here?"
"Rin-san and Obito-itoko, along with one other, have elected to become the guardians of Kimimaro and others like him. They guard the souls."
"Who's the other one?" There's another person in this forest?
"She prefers to be undisturbed. Come. We should continue on."
As the trees begin to thin out and the rays of the yellow sun can again be seen, Jiraiya frowns. "Oi, Uchiha." Itachi turns round. "What happens if I don't find a place?"
"Then you keep walking, until you find a place or until you become like him."
They find themselves by a river. There are once again no trees, and the long, light green grasses ripple under a lazy wind reminiscent of high summer and long days and short sultry nights.
Jiraiya peers at the river. They are standing on the flat bank, and the long, light green grasses ripple under a lazy wind.
The river itself is maybe twenty feet across; its waters are clear and placid, slow-moving in the balmy afternoon.
Recognition dawns. "This is the Nakano, right?" Jiraiya absently wonders where the buildings have gone.
He looks over and is shocked how Itachi seems to be affected by the sight of the river. He is pale, his eyes huge in his face. "Yes," he hoarsely whispers. "Yes."
Itachi turns tail and runs. He never looks back.
The grassy gives way to sand in patches at first, but soon entirely. It is fascinating to Jiraiya to watch the Nakano become narrower and narrower until it disappears entirely, but Itachi, though he does not give voice to it, can not be more relieved than when he doesn't have to look at the river anymore.
They're in the desert. The fast, constant winds Kaze no Kuni is so famous for is blowing sand into Jiraiya's face, battering his already weather-beaten skin into rawness.
The giant sun is hidden behind waves of flying sand; the heat, though intense, doesn't affect Jiraiya, and he finds that without the heat pressing suffocatingly down on him the desert is actually enjoyable.
There at first seems to be nothing but sand dunes, sand dunes going on forever, but then Jiraiya blinks, and materializing like mirages out of the desert heat are rock outcroppings, caves, and down a steep, slope of a dune a twin-spired rock formation stretching up towards the endless sky.
Jiraiya stares up at the rock formation nearest them, and almost smiles. This is too corny for words. "I'm gonna take it that that is where we are going."
"I thought so."
The path turns into a steep sandstone staircase cut into the rock, winding up and around, until they get to the top. Jiraiya huffs a little as he walks, honestly wishing he were in better shape so the walk wouldn't affect him so badly.
As Jiraiya walks, he can hear voices, several. Itachi doesn't seem to think there's anything strange about it, because he hasn't reacted at all, so Jiraiya assumes that his guide is either going deaf or knows who's at the top of the mesa.
They come to a flat area at the place where the two spires diverge. It is large, large enough for a wide tent with a flat roof made of a coarse, sturdy, taupe-gray material to be erected and set in a position where there is a comfortable amount of space away from the edge on both sides. The tent looks big enough to fit ten people.
But there aren't ten people; there are four.
Jiraiya is confronted with the sight of four people sitting in a circle, talking to each other.
His eyes are drawn first to a small woman dressed in dark brown and cream, with shoulder-length dark blonde hair and large dark green eyes. Sitting on one side of her is a man undoubtedly a relative of hers, a decidedly effeminate-appearing man, with hair the same shade and length as the woman's, a slight stature and large, thickly lashed, almost round gray eyes. On the other side of the woman sits a small teenage boy, hardly any bigger than her, with curling scarlet hair, translucent, hardly visible freckles across the bridge of his nose and cheeks, pale, delicate features, and large, heavy-lidded almost red eyes. Across from them is a tiny old woman, with shoulder-length iron gray hair and round dark eyes.
Jiraiya snorts, and grins. "It's you people again."
The younger woman looks up at him and frowns intently; the older lets out a humorless laugh, a wicked twinkle in her eyes. The fair-haired man smiles slightly, and all the red-haired teenager does is raise one eyebrow.
Chiyo is the one Jiraiya remembers best, mainly because he has seen her a few times since that day so many years ago in Sunagakure. But all the others, he last saw when they were children.
The introductions are somewhat awkward, to say the least. Yashamaru tries to scoot away from him the moment he sits down; Jiraiya all of a sudden remembers that he had mistaken the man for a girl when they last met, and he tells him so, just to see the way he will react. Yashamaru flinches (apparently he hasn't outgrown his shy twitchiness), and Jiraiya finds himself on the receiving end of three death glares.
Sasori looks up at him coolly and says, "So someone finally did you in, huh?"
A harsh stream of laughter follows this. "Look who's talking; you got taken out by an old woman and a little girl."
"Who are you calling old?!" Chiyo shrieks, jumping to her feet. When she sees that no one's paid any attention to her outburst, she sits back down, still fuming.
Sasori doesn't miss a beat. "I would have felt insulted if anyone less formidable than my grandmother were the one who had the pleasure of killing me."
"It was hardly a pleasure," Chiyo mutters half-audibly, and Karura looks slightly sad.
Itachi pulls a sweeping bow in Chiyo's direction, murmuring greetings. "Chiyo-sama."
Chiyo shakes her head and motions towards the ground. "Oh, for Heaven's sake, Itachi-chan, sit down before the wind bowls you over."
When Itachi sits down, folding one leg over the other, Karura looks at him, peering closely at him. "Your mother's been by, Itachi." He stiffens. "She's worried about you; she wants to talk to you."
Itachi looks at his hands, where they lie on his lap, then out into the sandy wilderness. "I am sorry to have missed her." Jiraiya is sure he's lying.
Order is eventually restored. Chiyo is good at keeping court. All of her former students accede to her will with an obedience a bit out of place in three grown people, and Itachi is so silent that his every action is taken as obedience, though he seems to be roiling with some inner struggle, the evidence of it showing in his eyes, not quite as calm as he would like to let on.
Karura has been frowning at Itachi since he sat down. "Itachi." He looks over at her somewhat unwillingly. "I want to talk to you. In private."
"You remember what I told you when we first met here?"
They have gone up a little further on the right hand spire, standing on a flat bit of earth. Itachi stands a little away from Karura, giving her some space out of respect. He knows that she is a formidable woman.
"Yes, Karura-san." Itachi nods, feeling slightly uncomfortable to be reminded of it. Something of the situation—or maybe just all of it—hit far too close to home to make him anything but painful listening to it.
"I still can't find her," Karura mutters, folding her arms across her chest in a movement born both out of insecurity and frustration.
Itachi blinks, feeling that all-too-familiar sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Karura has told him that there should be a little girl out there, perpetually twelve years old, with reddish blonde hair, gray eyes and a sunny disposition. And her constant endeavors to find her sister even after so many years of no luck tell Itachi that the pain of losing her sister remains to Karura all too real.
He searches for words to say and momentarily throws his eyes out to the wilderness beyond, seeing a dust cloud form and for the moment ignores it. "Karura-san…" Itachi pauses, and continues only when he feels deep green, gray-flecked eyes upon his face. "As you know, there are places in the afterlife that not everyone can go. Sayaka-san may be in one of those places. She will come to you eventually."
Karura smiles half-heartedly, eyes searing the sand. In that moment, she barely seems to notice Itachi is still there. Her face grows sad and uncertain, her eyes narrowing. "Wherever she is, she's probably with our parents." A laugh like a hiccup follows. "I have such a dysfunctional family. Apart from Kankuro, all of my men folk have at some point tried to kill my youngest child. Sasori actually managed it for a few hours, though in honesty—" her eyes settle significantly on Itachi "—he had help."
Itachi feels his face grow warm, and is glad when Karura mercifully drops the subject. The dust cloud again catches his gaze and holds it fiercely, and as Itachi watches it starts to take a shape, tenuously at first but then, almost as though it's feeding off his curiosity, it grows stronger.
"I imagine Jiraiya wanted to see his student Minato." Karura's accented voice seems to come through a filter of sand and howling winds. Though he is standing less than ten feet from her, Itachi can hardly hear her.
"Yes…" His voice drifts off like a cool wind at midday. "I told him…that they would not be able…to meet." The dust cloud's shape begins to become recognizable.
From an eternity away, Karura scoffs. "You know that isn't right, Itachi. People can leave the Place of Healing. I did; you did."
Itachi doesn't hear her. The eyes of the dust cloud stare up at him, two thin arms beckoning on, and Itachi gulps, his heart thudding painfully against his ribcage. Everywhere he goes…
Then a small hand falls tightly on his arm, and everything stops. The dust cloud becomes simple dust again with no form or animation, the whirling sand falls flat against rippling dunes; even the wind goes silent. Green eyes hold him stock-still and mute. "You have also told Jiraiya not to dwell on the living, haven't you?" He nods. "Then I have some advice for you. Heed your own words."
Itachi's throat grows dry as the Sand kunoichi speaks to him. "You can not chase a shadow, Itachi. You'll never catch it, and the chase will drive you mad."
He tries to move away, but Karura's grip on his arm grows to painful degrees, almost cutting off circulation; his fingers begin to tingle. "Let the living take care of the living," Karura intones softly.
The wind howls in Itachi's ears.
Sasori and Yashamaru have gone into the desert, to where neither Jiraiya nor Chiyo know. Chiyo isn't worried; they are, in her words, "more than capable of looking after themselves."
Itachi and Karura come back down. Itachi does not speak and sits down with his back leaning against a rock, but Karura immediately strikes up a conversation with Jiraiya. Karura, Jiraiya realizes, is the talker of her team. An awkward silence isn't something she can handle with finesse. And out of Chiyo and her old squad of students, Karura is the one whose view of Jiraiya is the least negative. She does still think rather lowly of him, but not nearly to the extent of her old teammates and sensei.
"So when I ended up here, I was by myself. I found that tarp—" the little blonde points to the tent "—with pegs, poles and what looked like some of Chiyo-sama's old books. I set up the tent—it was a little hard to do by myself, and guess who showed up to help me? No less a personage than the Sandaime Kazekage himself—read the books, visited some of the neighbors, and sat down and waited."
Jiraiya doesn't interrupt her. Her low, strong, Kaze-accented voice is pleasant to listen to.
Karura shifts, fingers playing with the hem of her kimono blouse, licking her dry lips. "I spent six years, out here by myself. Most of it I spent watching the living, my children and my brother in particular. It was a bad idea; I pretty much screamed myself hoarse and made myself sick; I was so frustrated, because I couldn't do anything about what I knew was going to happen.
"I could only watch as murder festered in my brother's heart, and I could only watch as he finally made good on what he had longed to do for so long. After Yashamaru and I met up here, we had a long, involved, and sometimes violent talk about his feelings towards Gaara. We've since decided not to talk about it anymore." Karura's eyebrows rise up into her hitai-ate; she is, out of her team, the only one who still wears one. "I don't know if Yashamaru regrets what he did. And frankly, I'm afraid to ask."
Karura's shoulders shudder slightly, as she looks at the stony ground. The shadows cast by the rock (the encampment sits comfortably in the shade) throw deep shrouds over her. "There's…no justice anymore." Her quiet tones ring unnaturally loud. Chiyo says nothing, staring deep into the vibrant surface of the quilt she has been mending, where stark reds and deep blues and bright yellows intermingle across her lap; Itachi looks away, unable to watch her face.
"That's not right," Jiraiya contends, rousing himself from laconism. "There is justice in the world."
The undersized kunoichi looks up just as the wind blows her hair back and forth over her face. Her eyes seem almost black, and they stare straight through Jiraiya without ever seeing him. "I loved Gaara. And thanks to the actions of the brother I also loved, he will live the rest of his life believing I hated him." Her voice is horribly low, and utterly dead. There is no hope, no happiness, no anything, and this time, it is Chiyo who has to look away. "Where was justice when I died? Where was justice when my child went mad?" Her voice rises up into life, implacable and hopeless and pained. "I didn't want this. I didn't want any of this."
The lonely cry of a desert hawk echoes plaintively over wind-beaten rock and sun-tinted sand; So there are animals here. Jiraiya is at a loss for words, an affliction that is growing more and more common for him. It takes him nearly a minute to realize that he feels sorry for her.
Then, Chiyo's old, slightly creaky voice rises. "You don't wish for revenge, Karura?" Her dark eyes are narrowed shrewdly; it is almost as though she is conducting some sort of test.
"What? Oh, no. Revenge is a hungry beast, one that should never be fed." Itachi twitches uncomfortably. "I didn't always understand that, but I do now. Takeo—the Yondaime Kazekage—" she adds when Itachi and Jiraiya look at her in confusion "—keeps company with his brother and his uncle. We don't talk, and I prefer to keep it that way." Karura looks up and smiles weakly at everyone. "Please…can't we talk about something else?"
Sasori and Yashamaru return about an hour before sunset, when long black shadows begin to cast out searching fingers to reel in the daylight.
Jiraiya happens to be standing in a place where he can see them coming back. He is thinking about Minato again, along with Naruto, Tsunade and the lot, and wishing he had his pipe so he could at least smoke some tobacco.
Sasori's bright red hair is the first thing Jiraiya spots. It's almost impossible to miss; a pinprick of scarlet against a sea of dull sandy yellow. They are coming up across the horizon, outlined against the blazing sun, their pace slow and easy. Jiraiya wonders if they talk or simply walk quietly. As they get closer, Jiraiya can see that Sasori and Yashamaru have picked up a stranger while out walking. The only thing he can tell about the stranger is that he's a man, is taller than Yashamaru and has black hair.
They come up the steps, and Jiraiya gets a closer look at the newcomer. He is a tall teenage boy, close to Itachi's height, with curly black hair, pale skin and wide, almost round black eyes. He has a jaunty grin on his face as he tries to talk up Sasori; it seems he's deliberately trying to make the redhead mad.
The boy's wide eyes grow rounder when they light on Jiraiya. "Holy cow," he blurts out. "You're Jiraiya, aren't you?"
Jiraiya smiles slowly. "Yeah."
"I'm Uchiha Shisui! Pleased to meet you!"
At that point, Chiyo looks up from her sewing. "You're back," she addresses Yashamaru and Sasori. Chiyo smiles humorously, dark eyes glinting. "And you've brought the life of the party with you."
"Now if only we could get rid of him," Sasori mutters.
Jiraiya notices Itachi slinking off in the direction of the tent, trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Karura is inside the tent, getting Chiyo some more thread.
Shisui rolls his eyes at Sasori and walks up to Chiyo, bowing politely. "Hello, Chiyo-baasama. I hear you have my idiot. Is he still around?"
The old puppet mistress smiles congenially. "Of course, Shisui-chan. He's over there." She points towards the tent.
Shisui sees Itachi and immediately swings one-eighty degrees from cheerful and slightly annoying to deadly serious and mad as a snake. "There you are!" Shisui marches over to the tent and grabs Itachi's arm. "You blockhead! Where have you been? Do you have any idea how long I've been looking for you?" Shisui, despite his slightly smaller size, easily manages to bodily drag Itachi away from the tent.
Itachi, seemingly somewhat disoriented, can only perturbedly mutter, "I am not a blockhead."
Shisui, Jiraiya decides, follows the Uchiha tendency of getting pretty inarticulate when he's angry, but unlike most Uchiha, gets increasingly vocal instead of increasingly quiet. He finds it's a rather refreshing change.
"Chiyo-baasama?" Shisui is firm and his eyes fall on Itachi with a sternness that Jiraiya can guess is out of character for him. "Can we stay here for a few days? I need to have a long talk with my cousin, and I don't think he's gonna be very cooperative."
Itachi looks like a man being told to attend his own funeral.
Chiyo rolls her eyes at Itachi's sudden change of expression. "I'm fairly certain Itachi-chan and Jiraiya were going to be staying with us for a few days to begin with."
"That's very convenient, thank you."
Looking at him, Jiraiya comes to the conclusion that Itachi has accepted his fate, because he's grown more relaxed and he seems slightly more contented. Obviously, the two know each other pretty well.
The sun continues to sink over the crest of the dunes.
"Ah, this is probably the only thing I like about the desert." Jiraiya and Sasori sit at the precipice of the ledge as the sun sets over the horizon.
The huge sun sets in a fiery ball of crimson and scarlet, massive and majestic. The sand seems a sea of blood or crimson water. The dunes are tipped with gold. The sky is painted with long horizontal strokes of gold and carmine, and above a deep, liquid indigo glitters with pinprick stars that seem the normal size and not the enormous size they were shining over the grassy hills.
Sasori only nods mutely, his heavy-lidded eyes surveying the wilderness with a strange mixture of serenity and weariness.
Jiraiya isn't sure how he came to be sitting with the former Akatsuki member, staring at the sun as it gives way to the moon, but he is, and no one's questioning it.
Sasori isn't much more of a talker than Itachi is; if anything, he may be even quieter, except that he feels the need to occasionally air his views through biting sarcasm.
Strangely enough though, Jiraiya considers him a much better companion than Itachi. He's not sure why.
"Sasori," a female voice, Karura, is calling to the redhead, and Sasori immediately looks around, as if on cue. "Chiyo-sama's in the tent." Karura tells him, standing at the mouth of the tent; Itachi and Shisui both had to stoop to get inside—the only regular occupants are a bit shorter than most people, after all—and Jiraiya's thinking he's going to have to bend double when he finally comes inside. He's seriously considering sleeping outside, despite the wind. "She wants to speak with you."
Sasori nods. "Alright, Karura. I'll be in in a minute."
She smiles and disappears behind the tent flap, and Sasori's widened eyes linger on the spot where she stood for several seconds, somewhat agitated and highly distracted. He licks his lips.
Jiraiya shakes his head. In one way at least, Sasori has not changed since he was eleven years old.
Jiraiya's suspicions prove correct. Despite the moon being its same enlarged size as over the grassy hills, the stars are the same size as they would be in the living world.
The sky is a deep, satiny blue, nearly black, smooth and consistent. The stars shine with a fearsome tone in their jewel-bright shades from far away; when Jiraiya looks closely, he can make out the constellation Orion, the stars of the belt twinkling down at him.
Jiraiya has decided not to sleep in the tent. The wind isn't all that bad, even if it is constantly buffeting him, and the fresh, cool air feels good across his face.
He has his head propped up on his elbows as he stares up at the living tapestry. All Jiraiya hears is the whistling of the desert wind shifting sand across thousands of miles and the sound of his own heartbeat. And maybe someone snoring in the tent.
Then, he hears a soft swish of cloth, and props his head up a little bit.
It is the sound of the tent flap being pushed open. Jiraiya watches as one of the people inside slips out. From the height of the person, it is either Shisui or Itachi; he can't tell which in the night darkness.
The young man, with a feline grace, drifts towards the stairs that lead down into the stretching desert, and disappears from sight. He says nothing, and does not acknowledge Jiraiya's presence.
Jiraiya shifts position, and falls asleep.
"Where's Itachi?" Out of the pale early dawn light, spilling gold over everything it touches, Shisui's agitated voice reaches Jiraiya's ears.
Jiraiya woke up no more than fifteen minutes earlier. He has been content to sit back, pressed up against the still-cool rock face, and not really do anything but be still, in a comfortable state of half-sleep. Shisui's voice doesn't do much to rouse him from lethargy.
Honestly, Jiraiya doesn't care that Itachi seems to be missing. Whatever that slightly—no, extremely—unhinged Uchiha does is none of his business, does not concern him, and is unimportant in Jiraiya's view. He doesn't care if he never sees Itachi again; in fact, if he ever did see him again, it would be far too soon. Jiraiya ignores the prickling feeling in his stomach.
But Shisui cares a great deal more than Jiraiya. He roots frantically around the rocks, getting more and more overwrought and alarmed as he does so.
Eventually, the noise caused by Shisui's panicked searching wakes up the others inside the tent. Yashamaru and his sister push aside the tent flap first, closely followed by Chiyo and Sasori. The four stare at Shisui, bemused as he darts around like a hyperactive rabbit about the encampment and the surrounding area.
Finally, Yashamaru speaks up. "Shisui-san, what's going on?"
"I can't find Itachi," Shisui explains worriedly. "Get up, why don't you?" He snaps at Jiraiya, anger flaring in his wide dark eyes. "How can you sit there?"
"Simple. I don't give a damn about the Uchiha."
"He's your guide, isn't he?! Without him, you'd be stuck wandering around the afterlife with no idea of where you were going, and all you can do when he's gone is—"
"Calm down, Shisui," Karura soothes him. "We won't let your cousin get lost in the desert. Why don't you and Yashamaru go look for him? Jiraiya and I—" she shoots a fierce glare at Jiraiya promising what will happen to him if he refuses; Jiraiya groans internally "—will do the same. Just remember to be back by sunset."
"Okay, thank you Karura-san." Shisui starts to walk off down the steps on the other side, but Karura stops him, as she withdraws into the tent.
"Take these." Karura tosses two scarves, one to Shisui and one to her brother, to the pair.
"The heat won't affect you here, but those headscarves should help with the sand and the wind," Chiyo points out, settling down with quilt, needle and thread in hand. "Sasori-chan—" Sasori twitches a little bit at being referred to by the suffix "-chan" "—and I will be here in case Itachi-chan shows up while you're gone."
"Thank you, Chiyo-baasama."
Before they leave, Jiraiya gets up and stops Shisui. "Hold up, Uchiha. You're Shunsin no Shisui, aren't you?"
"You were alive during the time surrounding the Uchiha Massacre, right?"
"Didn't Itachi murder you?!" Jiraiya asks exasperatedly.
Shisui frowns in confusion. "And your point is…"
"Why the hell are you falling to pieces over the guy who killed you?!"
Shisui looks up at him and smiles coolly. "Jiraiya-sama, I am about to tell you one of those undeniable truths that we come across so rarely in the world. My place is with Itachi. It always has been, and it always will be. The idiot doesn't see it yet, but he will."
Shisui and Yashamaru disappear down the far side of the ledge.
Jiraiya gapes after him. Damn fool…
Karura pulls the light-colored wool scarf around her throat up on her head, and grabs another out of the tent. "Do you want one?"
"No thanks. I'll be alright."
As they prepare to leave, Sasori stops them. "Karura?" Sasori is noticeably uncomfortable. "Why you get back, can we talk?" he asks awkwardly. "Alone?" He glances sideways at her, eyes deliberately opaque to hide whatever emotions might be under them.
Karura starts a bit, but then her eyes soften and she smiles slightly. "Sure."
Karura makes her way down the steep, weather-beaten stone stairs her brother and Shisui took a moment earlier, Jiraiya following after.
The pink and lavender bands have long since faded from the sky, leaving behind a bright blue, lightly tinted with heady bronze as the desert sky always seems to be. The wind blows away footprints in the sand. Judging by the position of the sun and amount of time they have been walking, it is close to midday.
Sand is trying its very best to clog in Jiraiya's eyes and his mouth; he is beginning to regret not accepting Karura's offer of being allowed to borrow a scarf. The wind has risen and fallen from a shrill, ear-splitting scream to a dull roar at least three times, and it is rising again.
It's no use trying to talk. Karura has her scarf pulled up over her mouth with one hand, her eyes squinted to the point that they're almost shut. The wind is too loud and insistent on being heard for anything to be heard over it.
Jiraiya feels a small tug on his sleeve, and looks down. Karura is pointing east, making sharp, staccato jabs at the air. Jiraiya looks over at where she's point, thinking at first that she's spotted Itachi, but instead he sees, at the bottom of a dune, what looks like a hole in the ground. When he looks again he sees that it's a cave mouth, gaping like an open sore on the surface of the desert's skin, with a gentle slope leading down into a cavern.
Karura begins to walk towards the cave mouth, and gestures for Jiraiya to follow.
The cave mouth is actually where a labyrinthine network of limestone tunnels reaches the surface. As Jiraiya steps into the refreshingly cool cave, he can see many tunnels branching off from where they stand. About fifty feet from the hole they entered through there is another hole, purely vertical, where a waterfall of sand crashes against the ground with a surprisingly quiet "boom" and sunlight floods the stone.
Karura lowers the scarf from her head. "It's quieter here, good." She shoots a piercing gaze at Jiraiya. "Let's talk. You've asked Itachi about your student Minato, haven't you?"
"Yeah. Uchiha said I'd never see him, but I remain unconvinced."
She nods. "That's good, because you will be reunited with Minato, eventually."
"You mean that brat was lying?" Jiraiya bristles, his face getting red.
"No, no." Karura pauses, looking down the tunnel. "Itachi is still very new here. He doesn't know everything about the inner workings of the afterlife. Minato is in the Place of Healing."
A sigh that sounds more like a groan follows. "He hasn't told you about that? Oh, well. As I'm sure you know, in life there are those who suffer emotional or mental trauma during life or at the point of death. If the damage done to their souls are too great, or if they are never able to find the Place of Healing, then those souls go to the dark forest. There's no hope of recovery there.
"The Place of Healing is where damaged souls go if they can be saved. A person may stay there for as long as they need to and as long as they wish afterwards. I met Minato again there many years ago, right after his son was born."
"Well how do I get there?" Jiraiya asks eagerly.
Karura's lips twist. "You can't. The Place of Healing is closed to all those that do not need it. You'll never find it."
"Then can't you just go back there and tell him—"
"No, I can't. Once you leave the Place of Healing, you can't go back. It is a place reserved entirely for those in need of healing."
Jiraiya frowns and looks away. The obstacles just keep on rolling…
"Now, let's talk about your guide."
He snorts. "What about him? Other than that he pretty much lined up every member of his family besides his brother to be slaughtered, he's a member of the organization that killed your son and is trying to kill my living apprentice as we speak and that he's an all-around creep?"
She shoots him a look that's pretty much the silent equivalent of an annoyed "Grow up". "Do you have any idea why Itachi is helping you?"
"No, and I don't really care."
This time, Karura really does tell him to grow up. "It's his penance."
Jiraiya looks at her blankly. "He's brought this on himself, literally. Whether or not we are required to do penance for our deeds depends entirely on whether we feel guilt for the deeds we have committed. Itachi is consumed by guilt. As a guide for the newly dead, he can never stop wandering until he expunges his guilt and comes to terms with what he has done."
A cold laugh tears itself from Jiraiya's throat. "If that's a joke, Karura, it's a pretty bad one. Itachi has never shown any sign of regretting killing his family, and trying to convince me otherwise is as likely to succeed as—"
"You do not know everything, Jiraiya, nor are you always right," Karura informs him briskly. He glares at her. Undeterred, she goes on to say, "There's much about Itachi you don't know and that, if he has his way you never will know.
"Treat him a little more gently." Karura bites her lip. "When Itachi died, he came to the Place of Healing; God knows he needed it. He left after three days.
"It was obvious he wasn't healed, but a soul can only stay in the Place of Healing of their own free will, so the guardians of that place had to let him go.
"Itachi is…vulnerable, at best. He's prone to dwelling on the living far more than what is healthy, and as such is susceptible to the dangers the afterlife poses to those who do so."
Karura looks out the cave. "The wind's starting to let up." They resume their search.
Some time after leaving the cave, Karura makes it to the top of a dune before Jiraiya does. He can see her stiffen, and hears her muttering, "I warned him."
Jiraiya comes to stand beside her at the peak of the sand.
What is going on here?
"The desert is full of mirages, traps for those who dwell too strongly on the living." Karura, a tiny woman besides a very large man, has to crane her head up nearly vertically to catch his gaze, but none of the power of her grim gaze is lost in the gesture.
"What's going on?"
Karura folds her arms tight across her small chest. "Itachi sees the face of his brother and everyone he couldn't save in the dust that swirls around him. He dreams about them; he can't outrun them. Guilt, sorrow and lingering worry drag him down into despair and the power of the desert illusions holds a very strong power over him.
"Itachi isn't like the souls of the dark forest, but in a way, he's created his own Hell. And he's living it now."
She tugs on his sleeve. "We should go." Her voice is rough with bleakness and a lingering sadness. "He'll realize fantasy from reality in his own time, and nothing we say to him now would be capable of making him leave now."
The image of Uchiha Itachi chasing the swirling dust haunts Jiraiya all the way back to the mesa.
Shisui and Yashamaru are already there when they return. To Shisui's distraught questioning, Karura smoothly and effortlessly lies, telling him that, no, they have not seen Itachi anywhere, nor have they seen any trace of them.
"Sasori?" Her voice becomes considerably more gentle and human when she addresses her former teammate. "You said you wanted to talk to me?"
He nods, with unusual shyness. "Yeah."
They head up to the higher ledge.
"Where could he be?" Shisui mutters, scanning the wilderness with worried eyes.
This night's sunset is even more spectacular than the last. This time, it is entirely crimson, bloody red and hard on the eyes.
Jiraiya is sitting in the same place he was last night, enjoying the changing colors of the sky, when Sasori and Karura come back down.
Karura comes down first, smiling. Sasori follows behind more slowly. He is also smiling, albeit a little more shyly. As they get halfway to the tent (neither one of them seem to notice Jiraiya's existence), Karura turns around and laughs, softly and lightly.
The reddish light catches on her and makes the highlights of her hair glitter and her dark eyes shine.
Sasori's smile widens slightly.
They disappear back into the tent.
Jiraiya drifts off, and when he wakes up it's to the sound of voices.
The red light has deepened, showing blood red and black colors across the rocks of the mesa.
There are two tall figures standing towards the stairway up to the ledge—Shisui and, it seems, Itachi.
The taller of the two is clearly agitated, shifting on his feet and debating whether he should run back out into the wilderness. Jiraiya almost thinks he hears a rough, harsh sob come from him.
"Itachi," the shorter of the two—Shisui—speaks, "I'm worried about you. You're falling apart. Won't you at least talk to me?" Pained sadness and anxiety tint his voice.
Itachi replies in so low a voice that Jiraiya can't hear him, but Shisui's reply is perfectly audible.
Shisui moves and puts a hand on Itachi's shoulder. "Look, why don't we go up there and talk? I wanna help you, Itachi."
They head up the ledge, and Jiraiya falls back in sleep again.
When morning comes, Shisui is gone, and Itachi looks horrible. His eyes are red-rimmed and puffy, his face strained and pale. He says nothing, and Jiraiya and Itachi leave before sunrise without saying goodbye to Chiyo, Yashamaru, Sasori or Karura.
They walk the whole day without stopping, for the first time in total silence.
Jiraiya isn't used to feeling uneasy being alone with a person, but Itachi's obviously not himself. He is tense and set to snap; Jiraiya doesn't like dealing with any shinobi when they're like that, so he says nothing, and does nothing that might provoke the Uchiha into speech.
With the darkness the sands melt away, and, from a distance at first, Jiraiya hears a dull roar. As they continue to walk, the roar gets closer and closer, and Jiraiya realizes that there is a cliff to their left and that they are walking not on sand but on smooth pebbles.
It is night, and they are on a stony beach, with a steep, high cliff to their left and the rolling sea to their right. The reflection of the waning moon shimmers on the black water.
Jiraiya frowns, remembering what Obito told him. The places you go will resemble places you've been in life.
"I don't get it," he mutters. "I've never been here."
Itachi's breathing gets considerably harder. "I have," he whispers, and slowly, he sinks to his knees just out of the reach of the foam, fingering the pebbles.
"Itachi." A new voice comes out of the darkness, and from the direction in which they were walking a woman appears.
She bears a Hi accent, and she is slightly above average height for the women of Hi no Kuni. In the bright light of the moon, Jiraiya can see her features well. She has long blue-black hair, a pale, heart-shaped face and large black eyes. Jiraiya thinks that in repose or if she were smiling, she would be a pretty woman, but she is not smiling. She's glaring at Itachi, though her angry eyes are tinged with worry.
Itachi's face waxes white. He stands up and nods respectfully. "Mother."
Whoa. His mother's a real looker. Who'd have guessed?
"You're avoiding me." Her frown deepens. "Again."
Jiraiya can't be sure, but he thinks he sees Itachi's face darken slightly.
"Come with me. We need to talk."
Itachi's mother starts to walk away, beginning to melt back into the night. Itachi looks at Jiraiya and says, "Jiraiya-sama, I'm sure you can find your way for a few hours, can't you?"
"Sure." Jiraiya waves him off. "Sort out your issues with your mom. Take all the time in the world."
Itachi nods. Then, surprisingly: "Thank you."
After the two have gone, Jiraiya continues to walk. The roll of the late night tide echoes in his ears; Jiraiya's never really liked the sea.
Eventually, the ocean melts away, and Jiraiya realizes that he is walking in a forest. It is similar to the dark forest, but not quite the same. Jiraiya can hear crickets chirping here, and the air is humid and heavy with the smell of impending rain.
He sees a light appear in front of him. Small at first, but then it starts to grow, and Jiraiya realizes it's a campfire.
Jiraiya steps into the clearing, and the man stoking the fire looks up at him, and smiles.
"Hello, little brother," Sakumo greets him in his sonorous voice. "It's been a while."
Jiraiya isn't sure whether to be happy or mad as hell. Personally, he's leaning more towards angry.
"Welcome to the forest of people with unfinished business," Sakumo says whimsically as he sits down across from him. "I'm assuming you're only passing through. I've been here for the best part of twenty five years."
Jiraiya, however angry he is at Sakumo, tries to be civil. "You want to hear anything about Kakashi?"
His older brother shakes his head and smiles, a strange, subdued smile. "That's alright. I want to hear it all from him. You did take care of him like I asked you to, didn't you?" Sakumo asks worriedly.
Jiraiya laughs ruefully, scratching the back of his head. "Well, gosh, Sakumo, you know I'm not the best father-figure in the world. I made sure he got enough to eat and didn't get into my liquor, I can tell you that much. Minato did most of the raising."
Sakumo sighs. "Well, as long as someone did..."
Jiraiya nods, and is silent for a moment, but then he speaks up again. He asks. He has to ask. "Why'd you do it, Sakumo?"
Sakumo looks up. His eyes grow sad. "The shadow over me...It would have passed to him."
Kakashi. "Don't you dare blame this on your kid, Sakumo," Jiraiya says threateningly. "Don't you dare."
"I'm not," he defends himself. "It's just..."
"Everyone seems so eager to blame the child for the sins of the father. Kakashi had such a bright future, but as long as I was a part of that future, he would be blighted. Everything...the threats, the ridicule...It was just too much. And I was afraid that everyone who hated me would transfer their hate to my son. I couldn't do that to him."
"Nothing but a damned tragedy," Jiraiya mutters. "Well, you sure picked a funny way of resolving the problem, I've gotta hand it to you."
A small, subdued thunder clap comes overhead.
Jiraiya stares into the fire. It doesn't seem natural; the logs don't seem to be burning. "We were never very close as kids, were we?"
Sakumo stokes the fire again. "Well, Dad never acknowledged you, even though you did look just like us. If I recall, we didn't actually meet until I was about sixteen. You were a scrappy little kid, angry at the world. We didn't get close until you were a few years older."
Jiraiya's heartbeat slows. "I…missed you, Sakumo. I missed you every day."
His eyes sadden. "I'm sorry I hurt you, Jiraiya."
Jiraiya's lips twitch in a bitter smile. "You always cared too much, Sakumo. It was your fatal flaw."
They fall silent again. Jiraiya feels as though he's let go of a great deal of suffocating tension.
"I know you want to see Minato." Sakumo is smiling at him gently. "And you will. But only on his terms."
Jiraiya stares at his hands.
"Jiraiya. Don't worry about the loved ones you've left behind. You'll see them all again. You don't have to forget them to move on."
Jiraiya smiles reluctantly. "Thanks, Sakumo."
It begins to rain.
"Itachi…I'm worried about you." Itachi flinches to hear the sorrowful note in his mother's voice.
"I…know, Mother." He has to force the words out, ashamed to be the source of her pain and fear.
Uchiha Mikoto looks at her son, a saddened, frustrated look gleaming in the depth of her dark, liquid eyes. "We all are. Me, Shisui, even your father." She looks down and manages a rueful smile. "Though you know he doesn't admit it."
Itachi bows his head, feeling his eyes burn.
Mikoto puts her hands on his shoulders; he looks at her unwillingly. "You're hurting yourself, my son. What's done is done. If you do not stop worrying about your brother, you will never be able to survive here."
"I have to know he's alright," Itachi tells her brokenly. "I have to."
She tilts her head, pulling her lips back in pain. "I don't want to lose Sasuke. But I don't want to lose you, either. You have to come to terms."
Mikoto smiles wistfully, rubbing her hand against his cheek. "I know you'll think of something." Her voice trembles. "You're never alone, Itachi."
Itachi clasps her hand.
It is morning, bright, blissful morning. The soft, dull-thundered rain of last night has petered out to a clear morning. The grass smells moist and fresh; the sun twinkles from behind woolen clouds.
Jiraiya feels better. He doesn't know how or why or what about, but he does. He's able to actively enjoy the scenery without thinking of everything he's left behind.
His face breaks into a slow grin as buildings start to materialize in front of him. One look at his feet tells him he is no longer on an earthen path but on a stone high street. One of Konoha's high streets.
When he looks to his right, he sees the apartment complex where he used to live. Deep red brick, with white jasmine snaking up the side of the building. It was destroyed during the Kyuubi's attack.
Well, that took a very long time, but it was worth it.