Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters therein.
Important Note: This story is a sequel to ncfan's story "Chasing Shadows" (written with her permission, obviously). The concepts behind this story, and the workings of the Narutoverse afterlife described here, are hers.
Warning: Manga spoilers, as usual.
The Winding Path
Nagato slowly opened his eyes and found himself staring up into the bluest sky he'd ever seen. In Ame no Kuni, the sky's color was usually some variation on "grey," due to the eternal rain-clouds. But the sky he looked into now was a bright, bright blue. It reminded him of Konan's hair, actually.
Nagato felt a stab of sorrow at realizing that he had left Konan alone. Wasn't that the one thing he had promised never to do? After Yahiko's death, when she was sobbing into his shoulder, hadn't he whispered that he would always stay with her, always protect her?
But, he thought, by giving my life, I've created a chance for the world to find a better destiny. If I can't be with her, at least I can make the world a better place for her to live in. That is a form of protection as well.
From the corner of his eye, he saw movement, and turned his head. Itachi stood there, gazing down at him impassively. "Are you ready?" he asked in the same calm monotone Nagato had gotten accustomed to hearing from him when they were alive.
"Ready for what?"
"For the journey. To find your place."
Nagato sighed. And people thought he could be enigmatic sometimes. "What are you talking about?"
Itachi blinked. "You are dead. This is the afterlife. You must find a place to be."
Nagato got to his feet and looked around. They appeared to be in the middle of a clearing in a pine forest-he had been laying on a carpet of leaves and pine needles. He brushed a few of these out of his hair. Looking down at himself, he noticed that the spikes of black metal no longer pierced his arms and legs. Running his hands over his torso, he found that he no longer had the emaciated, sickly body that strenuous use of his Rinnegan abilities had left him with.
"A place to be?" he asked Itachi. "Do you mean that this is just some kind of waystation, and I have to move on to Heaven or Hell?"
"No," Itachi answered, deigning to clarify at last. "Heaven and Hell are what you make of them. This is the main part of the afterlife, but because people are so different from one another, it must take many different forms to provide each with what they need. When a person arrives, he must wander until he finds the part of the afterlife in which he belongs."
"I want to find Yahiko," Nagato responded immediately. "Wherever he's chosen to be, that's where I belong as well." He paused, realizing that Itachi probably had no idea who Yahiko was. For that matter, did he even know who Nagato was? "Itachi-san," he said, "are you...aware of who I am?"
Itachi nodded. "A guide is always aware of their charge's identity. You are Nagato-san, who was known to me in life as Pain-sama."
A guide? Having gathered extensive intelligence on all of the Akatsuki members before he recruited them, Nagato knew full well the true reasons behind Itachi's massacre of the Uchiha. Thus, he knew that Itachi wasn't the heartless monster that most people in the living world believed him to be. But he still seemed like a bit of an odd choice for a guide to the newly dead. He wondered if the Leaf shinobi he'd killed during the invasion of Konoha had been greeted by Itachi during their brief stay here. They have no way of knowing why he did what he did-they probably tried to kill him all over again.
"Well," he said out loud, "if you know where Yahiko is, lead the way."
"I do not know," Itachi confessed, "but if we walk for long enough, we will find him."
They passed their trip through the forest in silence, eventually emerging into a wide, flat grassland. Despite the brilliant sun and the lack of shade, Nagato found the temperature pleasant. Itachi had already explained to him that neither heat nor cold could harm him here, so this didn't surprise him. There was, however, a nearly constant breeze which sometimes appeared to move in ways it shouldn't. Itachi had told him that there were "spirits of the air" in this place-not that Nagato had any clue what that meant. So far, they had seen no animals, and he wondered about that as well. He had been rather hoping that he might be reunited with the puppy he had cared so much for as a child.
They camped out in the grassland that night, and Nagato was struck by the brilliance of the stars. They seemed to blaze much more brightly than they had done in the living world, and the moon seemed so close that he felt like he would be able to touch it if he reached out.
They continued on the next morning, and as promised by Itachi, Nagato felt no ill effects from not having eaten or drunk since he had died. The dirt track they followed through the grasslands became wider and clearer, eventually becoming paved with gravel, then with cobblestones as it reached a small cluster of buildings. Itachi greeted a few people who passed them on the street: "Umino-san. Hayate-san."
Nagato had gathered that most of these people were from Konoha, so he was surprised when a voice called him by name in a mix of enthusiasm and disbelief: "Nagato-kun! Is that really you?"
Nagato turned, looking for the source of the voice, and saw Jiraiya standing on a balcony above them. The white-haired man grinned and vaulted over the balcony railing to land in front of them. "So, uh..." He gestured, clearly trying to find some alternative greeting to "How have you been?" since the answer to that was rather obvious.
"I'm looking for Yahiko," he said simply.
"Ah, I see..." Jiraiya trailed off again, and rubbed the back of his head uncomfortably. "Is Konan-chan..."
"She is not here."
Jiraiya nodded, finding that this made him feel relieved for some reason. Then he turned to Itachi. He still remembered Karura telling him that there were things he didn't know about the infamous clan murderer, and that Itachi's role as a guide to newly-arrived souls was a form of penance. He was a good enough shinobi to know when there was something going on beneath the surface, even if he couldn't tell exactly what that something was. Whatever had truly happened on the night when the Uchiha clan was almost wiped out, it was clear that Itachi wasn't the person Jiraiya had thought he was. So he spoke words that no one from Konoha would ever, ever think of saying to Uchiha Itachi.
"Itachi-san," he said firmly, "I need your help."
Itachi blinked in surprise. "With what? You appear to have found your place here."
"I want you to help me to find the Place of Healing. I want you to help me find Minato-kun."
Itachi sighed. "I have told you already, Jiraiya-sama. That is impossible."
"Nothing's impossible!" Jiraiya shot back. "This is the afterlife, for crying out loud. Paths here change on a daily basis, the moon appears to be about twenty feet away despite the tides not being any different than they are in the real world, and I've somehow mysteriously grown back an arm. In other words, things that are normally impossible happen all the time."
"But this world still has rules," Itachi pointed out reasonably. "They may be different rules from those of the living world, but they still exist. Only a person who truly needs the Place of Healing can find it, and once you've left, you can never find it again."
"I don't care!" Jiraiya retorted. "I'll find it if I have to search every inch of this place! Now, will you help me or not?"
Itachi sighed again. "I have to escort Nagato-san on his journey anyway. If you wish to accompany us in the hopes that we will stumble across the Place of Healing, you are free to do so."
"Alright, then," Jiraiya said, crossing his arms. "Let's get going."
On the other side of the cluster of buildings, the path continued on, once again degenerating into a dirt road. They followed it through the grasslands in silence for a while, until Jiraiya said, "Nagato-kun...you never did tell me exactly what happened to the three of you after I went back to Konoha. I gather that Yahiko-kun died, but other than that..."
Nagato looked down, seeming to find something very interesting about his feet. As he began to speak, Jiraiya noticed Itachi pulling ahead of them, as if he wanted to put some distance between them so that they could talk in private.
Late in the afternoon, they caught sight of a broad river snaking through the grasslands, sunlight flashing off its surface. Jiraiya remembered how Itachi had fled from the sight of the Nakano, and watched the younger man carefully. He seemed unperturbed, however-this time it was Nagato who stopped short and gasped. Recalling what Obito had said about places in the afterlife mimicking places one had known during their life, he asked, "Do you recognize this place?"
"Yes," Nagato said, his voice soft with longing. "As you probably know, Amegakure is built above a large inland sea. This is the river that flows into that sea."
Jiraiya eyed the river. It appeared to be both wide and deep. "How are we going to get across?"
Nagato pointed downriver. "There seems to be a boat approaching. Perhaps we could ask them for passage?"
As the boat came closer, they saw that it was really more of a barge-and a large one, at that. Despite its size, there appeared to be only two people manning it. At the front, calling directions to the man steering in back, was a young boy. He had long black hair, part of which was tied up in a cloth ornament of some sort, and delicate facial features. He wore a simple tan shirt and similarly colored pants, with a green yukata tied loosely over them. Jiraiya was surprised to see that there was a Mist ANBU mask tied to the sash of the yukata. He was a shinobi in life, then. But to be in ANBU so young...
The man steering the barge was older and much bulkier. He was bare-chested, and wore a truly huge sword strapped across his back. Bandages were wrapped around the lower half of his face, and like the boy, he seemed to have been aligned with Mist in his life, as evidenced by the forehead protector tied around his head.
Jiraiya stepped forward and waved to the men on the barge. "Hello there! Could we trouble you to take us across the river?" He paused, recalling that there was most likely no money here. "If there are any tasks you need help with, we'd be happy to render assistance in exchange for passage."
The man steering the barge expertly brought it in to the riverbank, and shrugged. "No payment's necessary," he said. "Ferrying people up and down this river is what we do." He gestured to the boy in front. "This is Haku-kun, and I'm Zabuza. Welcome aboard."
Jiraiya introduced himself and his companions, and Zabuza's eyes widened. "Jiraiya of the Sannin and Uchiha Itachi? I remember your names from the Bingo Book. What's going on down there to make two legendary ninja die one right after the other?"
Nagato shook his head. "You probably wouldn't believe us if we told you."
There was a pleasant breeze on the river, and the open deck of the barge was actually quite comfortable. Jiraiya sat next to Zabuza, marveling at how the man could maneuver such a large vehicle without much apparent effort. "So, have you heard anything about the Place of Healing?" he asked.
Zabuza looked at him sharply. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm looking for a former student that I think might be there."
"Hmm..." Zabuza looked thoughtful. "I know about the Place of Healing. I was there for a while."
Jiraiya tried to temper his eagerness to know as much as he could about Minato's current location with understanding that Zabuza wouldn't have been there unless he'd gone through something that he probably didn't want to talk about. "Is there anything you can tell me about it?"
Zabuza gazed out over the water for a few minutes, then said, "I don't really remember much about what it was like there. All I remember is that Haku-kun was wating for me when I left."
"Waiting for you? So he was able to find the place even though he didn't need it himself?"
"Apparently so. He was just sitting there on a tree stump, and when I asked how long he'd been waiting for, he just said, 'Since I got here.'"
The opposite bank of the river was nothing like the one they'd just left. In fact, there wasn't really a "bank" at all. There was only a tall, sheer cliff that looked as if it had been built from obsidian. Nagato wondered how they'd managed to avoid seeing it from the other side. Then again, the paths were constantly shifting here, so maybe it hadn't been there until just now. Luckily for them, there was a stairway carved into the cliff, and a dock for the barge to pull up to.
After saying goodbye to Zabuza and Haku, the three travelers began hiking up the stairway. Looking up, Jiraiya could just barely make out the top of the cliff. With the brightness of the sun and the blackness of the rock, the heat should have been unbearable, but he only felt pleasantly warm.
After what felt like hours, they finally reached the top. Given the cliff, Jiraiya had expected an undending plain of glassy black rock, but instead was confronted by the sight of a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers. I get that everything here is just a spiritual or mental construct, and as such doesn't need to follow the laws of nature, but really, is it too much to ask for the landscapes to make some sense? Nagato looked equally confused, while Itachi accepted the incongrous sight with the same blandness with which he seemed to regard everything here. (Everything except the Nakano, Jiraiya remembered.)
Nagato slowly turned in a circle, eventually stopping and pointing off to the northeast-or what would be the northeast if they were in the physical world. "That way," he said with complete confidence. "I need to go that way."
Jiraiya looked in the direction Nagato was pointing, and saw a mountain rising in the distance. "Not more climbing," he groaned, but Itachi had already started off towards it.
A sudden thought struck him. "Nagato-kun," he asked, "shouldn't you be able to see exactly where everything is? Shouldn't you be able to find Yahiko-kun with your Rinnegan? And then maybe you could point me in the direction of the Place of Healing..."
Nagato shook his head. "I haven't been able to see anything more than you can since I got here. Even now, I don't see anything special that makes me want to head towards that mountain. I just feel like that's the right way to go. Actually, not being able to see everything is...kind of refreshing, in a way."
The mountain was a great distance away, and they were still tromping through the field as the sun began to set. Jiraiya was quite happy to make camp in such a pretty place. With the gentle breeze and the scent of the flowers surrounding him, he fell asleep quickly and easily.
The sound that woke him in the middle of the night wasn't particularly loud or obtrusive. Despite that, it was unmistakable-a sound Jiraiya had heard all too often during his life. It was the sound of a muffled sob.
Jiraiya looked around and saw that Itachi was fast asleep, but Nagato's bedroll-somehow they always had bedrolls when they decided to camp for the night but never had to carry them during the day-was empty.
And suddenly, terribly, the sound made him realize that he remembered this place. It was where he and his teammates had camped the night after Tsunade got the news that her brother had been killed. They had been on their way back to Konoha for the funeral, and Jiraiya had woken to the same kind of brokenhearted sobbing. He hadn't been sure whether he should go to comfort her, or if she would rather be alone, and so he had simply lain awake and listened to her cry all night.
Whatever flaws he might have, Jiraiya prided himself on being a man who learned from his mistakes.
Getting out of his bedroll, he walked across their campsite, taking care not to disturb Itachi. A little way off, Nagato was silhouetted against the light from the overly bright moon and the too-close stars. The Milky Way stretched vividly across half the sky, just as it had the last time Jiraiya had been here. Under other circumstances, it would have been beautiful.
There was something else silhouetted against that uncanny light too, something that seemed to be in constant motion, and it took a few moments for Jiraiya to figure out what it was. A cloud of tiny white butterflies was swirling and dancing under the moonlight. But far from being some amorphous swarm, they were moving as a cohesive shape: a young woman in a long cloak, with part of her hair done up in a bun, and another shape on her head that suggested some kind of hair ornament or flower. It was immediately recognizable who the shape was supposed to be. Nagato reached out a hand, but the smoke shifted away, always staying just out of his reach.
Nagato was so entranced that he didn't notice Jiraiya walking up behind him until the older man put a hand on his shoulder. "Nagato-kun," he said gently, "you know that we can't dwell too much on the living. Just as those who live on earth have to move on when they lose someone they love, so we have to move on from those we left behind. That doesn't mean that we should forget about them, but we need to live our lives, just as we'd want them to do. And it isn't as though you won't see her again-the very fact that we're here proves that the death of the body isn't the end."
Nagato hung his head. "It's just that...everything I did, I did for her. She meant so much to me, and I...I don't think I ever told her. It's too late to tell her now." His voice cracked. "I can't bear the thought that she doesn't know how much I love her."
Jiraiya stared up at the starry sky and thought about Tsunade. Did she know that Jiraiya had loved her? He remembered the look on her face when she warned him against going to Rain alone. Had it been just a Hokage showing concern for a valued subordinate? Just one friend fearing for the safety of another? No, he didn't think so. Despite the alcohol-soaked state she'd been in, he was sure there had been more in the look than that. "Nagato...just because you never told her flat-out that you love her doesn't mean she didn't know." He managed a small smile. "Women don't need to be bludgeoned over the head with things like that the way we do." Looking back toward their campsite, he thought he saw Itachi shifting in his bedroll and a gleam of eyes in the darkness. He made sure that his voice carried the next words he spoke across the distance between them: "Like I said, it seems that everyone ends up here eventually, and once we're here, we're here forever. There's no such thing as 'too late'."
He led Nagato back to the campsite as the butterflies scattered behind them.
They reached the foot of the mountain around the middle of the next day. Unlike the obsidian cliff, there was no staircase leading up the slope. Instead, the path upward took the form of a hiking trail. Every so often, a smaller track would branch off, leading to a secluded cabin or a stone building carved right into the mountainside. Nagato marched past all of these without giving any of them a second look.
Finally, Nagato turned off onto one of the side paths, with Jiraiya and Itachi trailing in his wake. The path led through a forest for a short distance, until it opened up into a clearing surrounding a cool mountain lake. Perched on stilts above the lake was a small but comfortable-looking house, with a bridge stretching from the front door to the shore of the lake.
"I...I know this place," Nagato said, his voice thick with wonder. "Yahiko described it to me. It's the house he used to live in when he was a kid, before his parents were killed."
As the group approached, the stillness of the scene was broken by the excited yipping of a small dog (the first and only animal that Jiraiya had seen here) that burst from the front door of the house, sprinted across the bridge, and bounded in enthusiastic circles around Nagato.
"Chibi!" he cried, obviously delighted. He picked the dog up, laughing as it licked his face.
There were heavier footsteps on the bridge now, and Jiraiya grinned as Yahiko almost tackled Nagato with a hug.
"And Jiraiya-sensei! It's great to see you again. Well, I mean, I guess it's not great that you died, but you know what I mean. Were you Nagato's guide?"
"No, I'm just along for the ride. I'm looking for something on my own, and figured I might as well accompany Nagato-kun for a while. I don't know if you noticed, but looking for things here is sort of a matter of trial and error. Itachi-san here was Nagato-kun's guide."
"Itachi-san? You mean Uchiha Itachi?"
Itachi nodded silently.
"Oh, hey, that's perfect! There's a guy here who says he's been wandering all over looking for you. He said you were a guide, meandering around with the newly dead, and I told him that maybe the best way to find you was to just stay in one place for a while and wait for you to turn up there. So he's been staying here for a week or so." He turned back towards the house and raised his voice. "Hey, Izuna-san, that Itachi guy is here!"
Izuna watched Itachi curiously. He had suggested that they go for a walk around the lake, while Jiraiya and Nagato talked with Yahiko. So far, Itachi hadn't said a word.
Finally, Izuna broke the silence. "So, how long are you intending to remain a guide?"
"For as long as is necessary."
Izuna sighed. "Itachi-san, you were thirteen. Children that age are still easily manipulated by their elders. You should never have been put in a position where you had to make such a choice in the first place." His eyes narrowed. "Believe me, I've had words with both Fugaku-san and Sarutobi-sama about it. My point is that you're acting like all the blame is yours, when it isn't."
"Perhaps not all the blame," Itachi allowed. "But enough of it."
"That's not really what's keeping you from settling down, is it?"
Itachi glanced up sharply. "What do you mean?"
"When you see shapes in sand, or leaves, or rain, is it really the people you killed that you see? Is it Shisui-san, or Mikoto-san, or Fugaku-san?"
Itachi said nothing.
"You see Sasuke-kun, don't you?"
Itachi said nothing.
"Itachi-san..." Izuna's voice was exquisitely gentle. "I gave up a great deal for my brother as well. And I, too, wondered whether by my actions I had done more harm than good. But what's done is done, and dwelling on it will only make you more miserable. You've given up more than anyone should ever have to for Sasuke-kun. Now he has to make his own choice about what to do with that sacrifice."
They heard laughter from across the lake, and turned to see Jiraiya playing fetch with Chibi. "Do you see?" Izuna asked. "Nagato-san killed Jiraiya-sama, but look how much joy it brings Jiraiya-sama to see him happy! Forgiveness is a mysterious and wonderful thing, Itachi-san. It's a gift, and one should always accept a gift when it's offered by those you love."
Jiraiya looked back over his shoulder and waved at his two former students one last time. "So," he said to Itachi, "now that you've helped Nagato-kun find his place, what are you going to do?"
Itachi looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "There is currently no one who requires my attention. I suppose I will travel with you for a while, if that is alright."
Although he was beginning to get used to the strange mechanics by which the afterlife worked, Jiraiya couldn't help feeling a bit bewildered by the concept of an S-ranked missing-nin asking to travel with him. But Izuna had pulled him aside and spoken to him before leaving.
"Jiraiya-sama, I must ask you a favor. When you first came here, Itachi-san was your guide as you sought to find where you belonged. Now, he needs someone to perform the same function for him. If he isn't able to make peace with himself, I fear that he will become one of those who dwell in the Forest of Lost Souls."
Jiraiya still didn't understand what was going on with Itachi. Nagato had claimed to know, but had also refused to tell him. Clearly, though, there was more to him than the ruthless, remorseless criminal who had tried to kidnap Naruto three years previously. So he shrugged and said, "Sure, why not? Who knows how long it'll take me to find the Place of Healing? Having someone to talk to will make the time pass by more quickly, if nothing else."
They were making their slow way back down the mountain when they heard a joyful whoop above them. Jiraiya glanced back up the path, thinking that someone was following them down, but there was no one. Then a large shadow passed over them, and he looked straight up.
An enormous clay bird was soaring through the sky, dipping and wheeling in an acrobatic display that seemed improbable for something of its size. And riding on the back of the bird was a slender young man with flowing blond hair and some sort of camera device covering one eye.
"Hey, Uchiha-bastard!" Deidara grinned down at them. "So you finally kicked it too, yeah?" Flying low over them, he snagged each man's collar with one hand and flung them behind him onto the bird.
"Deidara-san..." Itachi's eyes narrowed dangerously, but Deidara only laughed.
"There's something I want to show you, yeah." He pointed at Jiraiya. "By the way, who's this guy?"
Jiraiya tried to strike a dramatic pose without falling off the bird. "I am the man who has no enemies left in North or South, East or West! I am the man that everyone else looks up to with awe! I am the great Toad Sage, Jiraiya-sama!"
Deidara shrugged. "Okay."
Jiraiya sighed. Why were people never as impressed as they should be by his greatness? But then something occurred to him. "Deidara-san!" he exclaimed. "Do you spend a lot of time up in the air like this?"
"All of it, yeah! I only go down to sleep."
"That's perfect! You must have seen almost all of this place from above, and you can see where all the locations are in relation to each other. Can you tell me where the Place of Healing is?"
"If you know what it looks like from above, we could find where it is right now. That doesn't mean it'd always be there. That's what I wanted to show Itachi, yeah." He pointed downwards. "Look."
Jiraiya peered down and saw the landscape of the afterlife spread out below them. Glimmering rivers criss-crossed land that was a patchwork of forests, fields, deserts, and towns. They appeared to be flying towards an ocean. The coastline transitioned from cliffs to beaches to salt marshes faster than any normal coastline should. Then, as Jiraiya watched in awe, one of the rivers slid across the land like a sidewinder, gliding smoothly across a field or two before coming to rest in a forest. Elsewhere, a desert simply blinked out of existence and reappeared on the other side of the mountain they'd just left.
"You see, yeah? This world is eternal, but it's changing all the time. From one moment to the next, nothing stays the same. Individual locations remain intact, but their positions relative to each other fluctuate. The only constant is change." He beamed at Itachi. "And not even your eyes can follow it, or figure out the pattern. This world is perfect art, yeah!"
Jiraiya tried to hide his disappointment. Maybe Itachi had been right-if everything here was in a state of constant flux, he wouldn't even be able to locate the Place of Healing by a process of elimination, because it could turn out to be in a place he'd previously searched. And how many people have died since the beginning of the world? What if this place is inifinite? It could be literally impossible to find a specific place unless whatever causes things to move wants you to find it.
For a moment, he contemplated giving up his search...but then he remembered a voice from his past, promising never to let go of a seemingly impossible dream. "If that's what it means to be wise, I'd be happier living my life as a fool!" He smiled to himself. No! Even if I have to search for all eternity, I will find Minato-kun! He glared down at the ever-shifting landscape. Give up trying to make me give up!
They were passing over the coastline now, zooming over the ocean. As they passed the rolling sand dunes that marked this section of coastline, Jiraiya saw someone below and cried out. "Land! Deidara-san, land and let us off!"
But they had already passed the tide line, and now the only thing below them was sapphire water. You can't die in the afterlife, right? Hoping that he remembered the mechanics of this world correctly, Jiraiya threw himself off the bird and into the waves.
"Jiraiya-sama!" Itachi dove off as well, launching himself into the water.
Jiraiya came up sputtering, surprised to find that it took almost no effort to stay afloat. His clothing and sandals seemed not to weigh him down at all. Itachi broke the surface beside him. "What was that about, Jiraiya-sama? Did you see the Place of Healing?"
"No," Jiraiya answered, "but I saw something else. Someone else. On the dunes."
Itachi raised an eyebrow. "And you couldn't simply wait for Deidara-san to turn around and head back to land?"
Jiraiya gave him a reproachful look and began swimming for shore. Itachi sighed and followed.
There was a cool breeze coming off the ocean, but neither man felt chilled, despite being soaked to the skin. Jiraiya's sandals squelched with every step, and water dripped continuously from the hem of Itachi's cloak.
A gazebo was perched incoungrously atop one of the gently rolling dunes. Jiraiya made a beeline for it, with Itachi trailing a step or two behind. "You know, Itachi-san," Jiraiya said quietly as they proceeded towards it, "there might be something to what Deidara-san said up there. 'The only constant is change'...maybe that applies to people as well as places. Perhaps this is a place where we can change ourselves from what we were in life. After all, we haven't been saddled with whatever physical disabilities we had when alive. Why should the...less visible burdens we carried have any weight here either?"
For a few moments, there was no response. Then Jiraiya heard a single word, spoken so softly that he could barely hear it over the wind, which seemed to be getting stronger: "...Perhaps."
Jiraiya jogged up the slope of the last dune, and leapt over the railing of the gazebo with a grin. Two men sat inside, engrossed in a game of shougi. Both of them looked up at Jiraiya's sudden entrance, and a warm smile spread across the older one's face.
"Hey there, Sarutobi-sensei!" Jiraiya greeted him. He nodded to the younger man, who clenched a cigarette in his teeth. "Asuma-san."
Sarutobi's smile bled away, and a look of sadness entered his eyes. "Although I'm happy to see you, Jiraiya-kun, I had hoped it wouldn't be this soon."
Jiraiya shrugged. "So did I, but I didn't exactly have a choice in the matter. As long as I'm here, though..." He gestured to the board. "When you finish your game with Asuma-san, want to test your skills against me?"
"At shougi? I never got the impression you particularly enjoyed the game when you were my student."
"That's only because Tsunade always rubbed my face in it when she beat me."
The corners of Sarutobi's lips quirked upwards. "And you think that I wouldn't beat you?"
"Why don't we find out?"
Asuma watched the other man who'd entered the gazebo with Jiraiya (although he had done so by the more orthodox method of walking up the steps). He leapt to his feet, accidentally knocking over the shougi board that sat between him and his father. "What are you doing here?"
Itachi stiffened, then turned around, obviously preparing to leave.
"Wait!" Jiraiya called out, then gave his former teacher a look that clearly said, I know there's something going on here, but I don't know what. Scrutinizing the older man's face, he saw that Sarutobi was aware of whatever mysterious secret the Uchiha was hiding. There was something else there too: a deep regret that he hadn't seen since Sarutobi had told him and Tsunade that Orochimaru had left the Leaf village.
"Asuma," Sarutobi said. "It's alright."
"Alright?" Asuma's fists were clenched. "Tou-sama, he-"
"Asuma." Sarutobi's voice was almost a whisper, but there was something in it that made his son fall silent.
Slowly, Asuma lowered his hands and sat down, though he didn't take his eyes off of Itachi. The Uchiha took a seat on the opposite side of the gazebo, and both men watched as Sarutobi and Jiraiya began their game.
Jiraiya glared at the board, where his teacher's remaining pieces outnumbered his own.
"So," Sarutobi said while waiting for him to make his move, "have you not found your place yet? Or is this your place?"
Jiraiya tentatively pushed his lance forward. "No, I've found my place, but there's somewhere else I'm looking for. Do you know anything about the Place of Healing?"
Sarutobi's hand paused over the board. "I know that souls who have been damaged go there to be restored. Supposedly, no one can find it except for those souls."
"I don't think that's true. There's a kid from the Mist-I remember Naruto telling me about him-who was able to find the place and wait there for his sensei to finish healing." His eyes followed Sarutobi's move. "I've heard that Minato-kun's there." He leaned forward. "I'm sorry to ask you this, but...did you have to go there because of your time in the Death God's stomach?"
Sarutobi closed his eyes for a moment. "I don't remember much about my time there. It was peaceful and quiet. And...it was in a misty place, surrounded by five oak trees."
Jiraiya felt like jumping for joy. This was the best lead he'd had since he got here! But seeing the solemn look in his teacher's eyes, he restrained himself.
After the dunes ended, there were grasslands. The greenery was taller than either of the two men walking through it, so they had no idea what was in front of them, or to either side of the path. Once again, they walked in silence. Jiraiya ground his teeth in frustration at his inability to scan the horizon. Mist and oak trees, huh?
Suddenly, the grass fell away on either side of them and they found themselves on a rocky riverbank. Jiraiya was pleased to see that this time there was a simple red-painted wooden bridge spanning the waterway. He looked back over his shoulder, intending to point this out to Itachi, but saw that the other man was backing away. "What...?" Then he looked at the river again and realized that it was familiar. It was the Nakano, at a point just outside the village walls.
A man was crossing the bridge in their direction. Dark hair. Tall. A face with chiseled, stern features. Dark blue kimono with a small Uchiha fan embroidered on the left breast. Jiraiya searched his memory. "...Fugaku-san?"
"Greetings, Jiraiya-sama. I would like to speak with my son, if I may."
Jiraiya shrugged. "It's fine with me, but..." He gestured towards Itachi, who was still retreating back into the grassland. "Oh, for the love of-" Jiraiya reached out and grabbed Itachi's wrist. The shorter man whirled around, and Jiraiya had to suppress the instinct to flinch. Since Jiraiya had first met him in this world, Itachi's eyes had been coal-black, but now they flashed to red.
"Let me go." Itachi's voice was low and dangerous, and Jiraiya was forcibly reminded that while they might have been traveling companionably for some time, this was still one of the most feared S-ranked criminals in the mortal world's history.
Still, he stood his ground. "No," he said flatly. "I don't know what's going on, but clearly something is. Karura-san told me that there were things about you I didn't know, and that you were acting as a guide as some form of penance. Shisui-san came looking for you, and so did that Izuna-san we met at Nagato-kun's place. And now your father's here, and none of them have looked like they were intent on, I don't know, re-killing you or something for what you did. I'm dead, Itachi-san, not stupid. There is obviously more to what happened with your clan than I know, and it's clear to me that they know what it is. If I had to guess, I would say that all these people are coming after you to tell you that your penance is over. You told me yourself that whether the afterlife is Heaven or Hell is up to us. I'm betting that you're determined to make it a Hell for yourself, and that they don't want you to. Now, are you going to talk to Fugaku-san, or do I need to summon a frog to sit on you?"
"You can't summon frogs here," Itachi said blandly, but his eyes returned to their natural color.
"Whatever. You need to talk to your father, Itachi-san." He released Itachi's wrist, and was pleased to see that the other man was no longer trying to escape from the river. He gestured towards the bridge. "After you."
Very slowly, Itachi approached the bridge and took a few tentative steps forward to where his father stood. Jiraiya followed and walked past the two Uchiha, nodding at Fugaku as he went. He could see that the path continued on the other end of the bridge, and he walked on.
For a few minutes, Fugaku and Itachi simply stood there, watching each other without saying a word. Itachi opened his mouth to speak, but Fugaku cut him off. "I'm sorry."
Itachi blinked, trying to recall if he'd ever heard those two words pass his father's lips before. He didn't think he had. "I should be the one apologizing. I-"
"You were put in a terrible position through no fault of your own. Madara was manipulating everything from the start by controlling the Kyuubi. I'm sure he wanted to create tension between us and the rest of the village, although he was probably hoping that it would erupt into a full-on civil war. He is the one to blame for all of this."
"How do you-"
"Izuna-sama told us, when we got here and explained what had happened." (Allowing Itachi to finish a sentence was, apparently, not on the agenda.)
"I still made the choice to go through with the Massacre, I was-"
"You were a thirteen-year-old boy, being pulled in one direction by the Elders and in another by me. I taught you to be the perfect shinobi, to put all emotion aside and complete whatever missions you were ordered without question. If you learned that lesson too well, the responsibility is mine."
This was a new experience for Itachi as well. To have a burden taken away, to be told that he need not take responsibility for everything.
"Do you remember what I tried to say, at the end?"
He had used Tsukiyomi to show his parents what would happen if their rebellion against the village went forward. The Hokage Tower destroyed, buildings reduced to rubble, the Clan decimated, Kurenai and Ibiki and Kakashi dead. Enemies taking advantage of the village's weakness to attack, causing the casualties to mount even further. In the wake of that horrible vision, Fugaku and Mikoto knelt on the floor, trembling. He had lifted his sword, intending to drop them both with a single strike. He had shown them why he was doing this, feeling that they had a right to know, and out of respect for them he would also make their deaths quick and clean.
He had swept the blade down in an arc, and both had fallen. In the few seconds before he bled out, Fugaku had whispered something. "I've always..."
"Whenever you accomplished something, I told you, 'Exactly as expected of my child.' I didn't want you to think that excellence was something to be praised. Excellence was simply what was expected, and if you wanted praise, you would have to go beyond excellence. But there were other words that I should have said, and at the end I realized that I never had."
Fugaku stepped forward and laid a hand on Itachi's shoulder. "What I tried to say to you, what I should have said a long time before, was: I've always been proud of you, son. And I've always loved you."
Jiraiya looked back, and saw Itachi and Fugaku stepping off the bridge together. They turned left, onto a path that hadn't been there when Jiraiya left the bridge. Fugaku's face was turned towards Jiraiya for a second, and though he couldn't hear their conversation from his vantage point, he could read the words on Fugaku's lips: Let's go find Shisui-kun, shall we? I think he's been looking for you.
Jiraiya smiled, and found that he couldn't help whistling happily as he continued along his own path. This bank of the Nakano gave way to a meadow that was entirely carpeted with tiny blue flowers. Jiraiya walked for a while, as the sun got lower in the sky. Then he saw something in the distance that made him gasp. Oak trees? Those aren't just oak trees. Those are...those are...I don't know what those are.
They looked like oak trees, five of them standing in a ring. But they were taller than any trees Jiraiya had ever seen. Their trunks rose skyward, disappearing into the endless blue sky. Jiraiya was certain they dwarfed even the mountain that Nagato had found his place on. And in the circle described by the massive trunks, there was a thick fog like cotton wool.
That's it! It's got to be!
Jiraiya broke into a run. As he got closer, he saw a lone figure standing just outside the ring of gargantuan trees. It was a woman with long, red hair, and when he recognized her, he skidded to a halt. "Kushina-chan?"
His favorite student's wife beamed at him. "Hi there, Jiraiya-sensei!"
Jiraiya grinned back. "This is wonderful! I came here to find Minato-kun, and found you too! Are you here looking for Minato-kun as well?"
"You could say that. When I arrived here, I was told that the Place of Healing was where he'd show up when he got out of the Death God's stomach. So I went looking. I found this place, and sat down to wait. There are other guardians here, and they tried to make me leave." Her eyes flashed. "I refused. Eventually, they said that if I was going to hang around here anyway, I might as well become one of the guardians. So I did."
"And...are you still waiting for Minato-kun to come out? Have you seen him?"
Kushina's smile faded. "I guard this place, but I can't go inside. So no, I haven't seen him, and yes, I'm still waiting. I'll wait as long as I have to."
"Well," Jiraiya said, sitting down with his back leaning against one of the trees, "at least now you have someone to talk to."
"Jiraiya-sensei..." Kushina looked down at her feet, unusually subdued. "Do you know anything about my son? About Naruto?"
Jiraiya laughed. "Do I know anything about him? He was my student! And let me tell you..."
A/N: Many thanks to ncfan for letting me write a sequel to her story! While I was reading it, I kept wondering about the other dear departed characters from the series, and hoping that Jiraiya and Itachi would eventually find what they were looking for. Hopefully I've managed to do justice to her ideas.