Chapter 3

Ten hours later, around what would have been suppertime for most people, Hirohiko and Jiraiya, along with Jonan and Aiko, arrived at the rock flats. Jonan and Aiko had said nothing about Hiko's and Jiraiya's emotional display, nor were they acting any differently for having seen it-a fact which relieved Hiko immensely.

The rock flats were basically nothing more than what they sounded like: a rocky, flat stretch in which the sands gave way as the terrain slowly climbed out of the desert and into more hospitable land. There were a few rocky outcroppings in which someone could hide from the sun, but other than that, there was no place from which to arrange an ambush.

The leader of Sound, with his long black hair tied into a ponytail, awaited Hiko. With him were two bodyguards-two young men with white hair. One looked rather wan; the other had glasses.

Jiraiya appraised the Sound leader and the two bodyguards. They all cast shadows, so in spite of the colorless guy who looked ill, they weren't vampires. That was something.

Hirohiko had, as usual, a bad feeling about the Sound leader, who claimed his name was Takeshi. Still, he approached and inclined his head. "Takeshi-san."

He didn't get too terribly close, though. He wasn't far enough away to send off warning signals, but he did maximize polite distance.

Takeshi bowed in return. "Kazekage-sama. I see you have brought an extra bodyguard with you."

Jiraiya did well not to tense. He merely kept his chakra masked. He bowed deeply.

Hiko gave him a mild look and merely nodded. It was hardly something Takeshi should care about. "Shall we begin our discussion?"

"Yes, let's." Takeshi gave Hiko a shrewd look. "The sun is hot."

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes. Takeshi's chakra was masked. All he had to go on were facial features - which might be faked - and mannerisms. Which were less easily faked, especially by an egotist like Orochimaru.

Hiko wondered at the comment. "Indeed it is." He had actually taken the last minute precaution of wrapping his torso with gold dust. It took a fair amount of chakra to hold to his body, but people with magnetism release had to build a lot of chakra in order to do their jutsu.

Takeshi smiled. It was almost a smirk. Jiraiya couldn't swear that it was Orochimaru's condescending smile, but it was a condescending smile. "Let me cut straight to the chase. We Sound have noticed that your feud with the Leaf ended without any proper recompense on the Leaf's part for all you suffered. For instance, the one known as Sharingan Kakashi slaughtered your troops, and yet is allowed to roam free. Not to mention that his father, White Fang, killed two members of your most prestigious family, and was allowed the chance to commit suicide before ever being brought to trial."

If Takeshi was Orochimaru, then he couldn't have picked a better tactic to get Jiraiya's blood boiling. It took all Jiraiya's control to take that without a flicker.

And here it is: the anti-Konoha speech. Hirohiko managed to keep an even expression. "True enough. But where we hold grudges, no healing can take place. If Suna held onto forever the blood spilled by Konoha, the vengeance would last forever. We would kill Kakashi and White Fang, and then their relatives would kill some of us. We would retaliate. And so forth and so on. Forever. We drew a line in the sand-" It was a much-used expression in Suna. "-and picked a cut off point." He paused. "Why? What would have us do, Takeshi-san?"

"We Sound feel confident that we can crush the Leaf," Takeshi said. "You need not fear from Konohagakure any longer. Our forces together would be so strong that there would be no relatives. No chain of revenge. Merely an end. Finally. Victory." He raised an eyebrow. "Were you not forced to take a treaty by the Leaf? Were you not forced to draw this line in the sand and turn the other cheek? Why should you? Why should you, when your great nation of Wind inspires others to your cause. You need not be alone, Kazekage-sama. Sound is sympathetic to your plight."

Jiraiya decided then and there that he would enjoy killing Takeshi regardless of being Orochimaru.

Hiko considered the blatantness of the speech.

"Takeshi-san, Suna has no agenda against Konoha." Hiko did not like the sound of this at all. "We are allies now, and we have no interest in breaking the treaty."

Takeshi raised both eyebrows. Then he grinned. "Ah, I see...I see." He stroked his chin. "The past has no meaning, then? I think not. That cannot be what you mean. Perhaps the sticking point with you is the treaty? Yes? Well, there is no need to keep a treaty with dead people. Your forces need not be involved in the invasion of Konoha. We Sound will carry out our will. The Will of Sound will triumph over the Will of Fire for you, and in gratitude, you will support our growing nation. No treaties are broken." He spread his hands. "Does this please you?"

"The Will of Sound?" Hiko murmured.

Takeshi gave him a sharp look, frowning as if annoyed. "Yes."

Jiraiya caught on to that point. Among the Five Great Shinobi Nations, each had a different philosophy. Leaf nin were the only ones who talked in terms of Wills.

"An interesting turn of phrase for one not of Konoha," Hiko murmured, willing to press the matter a bit.

Takeshi's eyebrow twitched. "You are perhaps not aware of our shared border with the Leaf? I have encountered Leaf nin before, and speak merely in terms of strategy. Everything is about a test of Wills to these nin. The only way to crush the Leaf is with a greater Will. One must dominate. Not control. You are controlling. This is why the Leaf take your jobs, why the Leaf get away with making no concessions to your nation for your suffering."

Jiraiya stared the man down. He pitched his voice slightly lower, still masking his chakra. "You speak to the Kazekage unwisely."

Takeshi's jaw dropped, and then his eyes shone with rage. "How dare you? Kazekage-sama, silence your men."

"Your puny nation has no right to give the Kazekage orders," Jiraiya retorted.

Sadly, Hirohiko was well aware that any other Kage before him, from any nation, would likely have jumped all over Takeshi's offer as long as he could prove sufficient strength to back the plan. That was often how wars had begun, in fact. But Hirohiko saw no advantage to war with his ally, and he would have to have a very compelling reason indeed to break a treaty with Konoha.

And, on top of that, he was convinced this man was Orochimaru.

"He makes a point," Hirohiko said. "As a new nation and a new leader, you speak quite boastfully and boldly." And what he considered the final test: "My answer is no."

"My nation is far older than you know," Takeshi said, fury dropping his voice into a grim register. "We have simply not had a home before coming to the poor, needy nation of Rice. We liberated them -"

"Squashed them," Jiraiya said.

He was rewarded with a spike of chakra.

Hiko just listened with interest, hoping Takeshi would hang himself.

Jiraiya smirked underneath his wrappings. "Squashed them like the savages, the bullies that you are!"

"Silence!" Takeshi shrieked.

Hirohiko decided Jiraiya was doing a fine job of baiting 'Takeshi' and stayed out of it.

"'Takeshi'?" Jiraiya taunted. "I've never heard of you before. What clan are you from? How can your powers be so great that you think you can crush the Leaf? Sand allies with Leaf because Leaf is strong. Sound? Ha. The only sound I hear is hot air blowing."

Takeshi lunged for him like a snake, his control smashing into a thousand tiny pieces and revealing the monstrous chakra of Orochimaru, dark and coiling.

Jiraiya let him get within a hair's breath and whipped out his blade, unmasking his chakra at the last instant.

The man halted admirably fast - Sannin fast - and leapt backwards. His face had a diagonal cut from forehead to chin. A line of torn skin that was not bleeding. Orochimaru tilted his head and peeled off the human skin covering his real face.

Hirohiko jumped clear, unleashing his gold dust from his canteen. "So it is you." He was glad he'd followed his gut instincts.

Orochimaru stared at Jiraiya for a moment, then glanced at Hiko with a smirk. "It is me? Of course it is me!"

Jonan held up his hand, summoning a sword made of wind. Aiko summoned his seven puppets.

Hiko smirked. "I thought so. So I brought someone who knows you quite well . . ."

"Who else would be willing to ally with your stupid, miserable nation?" Orochimaru snapped.

Hiko let the insult pass without comment. He wouldn't stoop to that.

His gaze flicked to Jiraiya. "Oh, well played." He clapped his hands.

Jiraiya tensed. He caught the flicker of a growing jutsu at the last moment and ran clear.

A cone of fire blasted where Jiraiya had just been standing.

Jonan and Aiko engaged Orochimaru's bodyguards, and Hiko suddenly found himself on three-way defensive support. He did his best to cover Jiraiya, Jonan, and Aiko with gold shields so they could fight easier. At the same time, he searched for an opening to surround Orochimaru with his gold dust.

"You can't win a fight with me using cheap tricks," Jiraiya said. "You've got to bring the real stuff this time."

"You were so naive when I left you last," Orochimaru said. He shook his head, smiling. "Look how you've grown. Shall I hope you are as underhanded as I by this point in your...metamorphosis?"

Jiraiya stared him down for a moment. He couldn't afford to miss a move.

Hiko's gold dust surrounded him in a defensive ring.

"Why don't we cut straight to the chase?" Jiraiya asked, mocking Orochimaru's earlier words. "Bring out your sword. Cough it up so we can quit the child's play."

"A duel? With you? That's just child's play with shinier toys." Orochimaru smirked at him. "I could say life has been less entertaining without you, but I'd be lying."

Jiraiya stole an instant while Orochimaru was talking and summoned the Great Toad.

Orochimaru's eyes narrowed in hatred. Before Jiraiya's summon was even complete, he started his own. An eight-headed snake appeared behind him, towering tall.

The two enormous summons began their own battle, Jiraiya's containing the battlefield by moving the summon fight further off into the desert.

One of the snake's heads let off a shot of poison that narrowly missed the humans and melted an outcropping of rock down to the ground.

After jumping clear of the summons, Hiko found himself defending Jonan against a young man who could multiply his bones.

Aiko seemed to be holding his own fairly well against the boy with glasses.

"You want everyone else to do your fighting for you, don't you?" Jiraiya said.

"I could say the same to you," Orochimaru said.

Hiko felt glad one of his skills was multi-tasking. He had a lot to track in this battle.

Jiraiya charged, sword leading.

Orochimaru swiftly gestured. Two coffins ruptured the ground, rising on either side of him.

Jiraiya's eyes widened. "You didn't -" He swiftly drew explosive tags from his belt pouch and threw them with dart-like accuracy. The coffins exploded before they opened, creating a cloud of masking sand and dirt. Jiraiya cursed, realizing that was a detriment in itself.

He looked around swiftly. "Summoning the dead? Really?"

"My villainy knows no depths?" Orochimaru returned wryly.

"You're fucking making a good run at it!"

Hirohiko was horrified by this. He didn't have time to say much, though. He was too busy helping Jonan fight the young man of bones. The man seemed impossible to kill. Even gold dust coffin didn't work on him. Hiko decided he would have to try suffocating him. He mixed his gold dust with the hardest minerals in the earth beneath them.

Orochimaru ambushed Jiraiya from the dust clouds, sword drawn.

Jiraiya whipped around and blocked Orochimaru's sword with his own. "Finally," he said through gritted teeth. "It's down to a real fight."

Their katanas clashed repeatedly, each blocking the other with lightning speed.

"You shouldn't be pleased," Orochimaru teased. "You lost the last time, remember?"

"I didn't lose. You ran away."

"Oh, does the referee say that doesn't count?"

Hiko covered Jiraiya's torso with gold armor.

He was determined to lose no one in this fight.

Orochimaru started to make the hand sign for a jutsu in Hiko's direction.

Jiraiya interrupted him with a furious attack. He didn't fear the poison sting of Orochimaru's weapon with Hiko protecting him.

Hiko was glad for Jiraiya's quick action; he didn't want to guess what would come next from someone who would summon the dead.

"You killed Minato." The lowest accusation Jiraiya could level at anyone on earth.

Orochimaru let out a sharp laugh. "Kurama killed Minato."

"You did." If anything, Jiraiya's voice was colder this time.

"And what do you care?" Orochimaru retorted. "What was he to you? You're talking like a man obsessed."

Hiko flinched from where he fought.

Aiko was gaining the upper hand on the young man with glasses. In fact, so much so that the young man teleported away, although not without hacking one of Aiko's puppets up with a chakra blade first.

Jiraiya's first instinct was to backpedal, to not let Orochimaru know of the depth, the purity, the importance of his feelings. Then he pushed forward. Nothing can sully our love. Love isn't something that can be mocked. Love is the greatest force on earth. He attacked Orochimaru relentlessly, Amegatsu searching for an opening. "Minato was everything to me. He was the greatest love of my life."

After all these years, it felt good to say.

Not to anybody. That didn't matter. Making the air vibrate with his feelings was enough. More than enough.

"He was married," Orochimaru scoffed. "And may I remind you, to a lady."

Jiraiya's heart clenched, but he pressed onward. "It doesn't matter. I had the feeling. It's enough."

Jonan and Hiko were still facing off with the wan young man of bones, though. He had changed forms, black designs trailing over his body. He was also coughing terribly. Hiko thought he was in ill health, but that didn't make him any less difficult to fight. The bones were harder than metal. Hiko decided suffocation had to be enough. He buried the young man in a tidal wave of gold dust and compacted it with a forcewave of chakra. He feared the young man could make his way out, still. So he buried him as deeply as he could and merely hoped he'd suffocate first.

"He didn't love you," Orochimaru returned.

Their blades locked. Both of of them forced their blades apart again, chakra shoving against chakra.

"Doesn't matter," Jiraiya said. "It's enough. My feelings are enough. They can't be changed."

"You're a fool."

Not assuming the young man was dead, Hiko pressed several more waves of chakra down into the gold dust and minerals. He felt some movement, so he repeated the gesture until there was no movement left. Thank God.

He turned back just in time to hear Orochimaru's comments. "I love him," he said baldly. That didn't make Jiraiya's pain over this Minato any less, but he hoped it would still help somehow.

Jiraiya shot a quick grin at Hiko and then retrained his attention on Orochimaru.

Orochimaru pretended not to hear. "He loved Kushina." He struck out viciously. Jiraiya countered. "He married Kushina." Another vicious attack that Jiraiya parried. "He died with Kushina."

Jiraiya outplayed him. His sword went flying out of his hand. "My feelings didn't die. My feelings are a shrine."

He lunged for Orochimaru.

Orochimaru leapt just out of reach and snapped his hand out. "Ha! Some shrine!"

His sword flew for Jiraiya, point first.

It deflected off of Hiko's gold dust shield.

"My love brings me more love," Jiraiya declared. "I understand Hirohiko because of what I went through. I love him, too."

Orochimaru's sword flew for him again and similarly bounced off.

This time Jiraiya grabbed it. "Snap it in two, Hiko."

Hiko lashed out with his super-hardened metal dust, bringing it down on the sword with precision chakra.

The sword broke like a fine crystal, shards flying.

Orochimaru gestured sharply. "You think you'll win." The shards of his sword redirected themselves midair and shot back towards Jiraiya, whistling through the air.

Jiraiya charged, trusting Hiko to shield him.

Hiko threw up multiple shields, catching every single last shard of it.

"You think you can kill me?" Orochimaru shrieked. "Well, there's a problem with that! I'm immortal!"

Jiraiya brought Amegatsu to bear.

Orochimaru tried to block.

Amegatsu cut through both his arms and cut off his head in rapid succession.

Blood flew.

Jiraiya looked down at Orochimaru's mutilated corpse and stabbed it through the heart for good measure.

Hiko kept his gold dust at ready just in case, although he walked over to join Jiraiya.

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. He twisted his sword.

Orochimaru's chakra blinked out.

Jiraiya withdrew his sword and cleaned it on the sand. "There's no such thing as immortality."

He turned away. "Not without God."

He glanced up and saw Hiko joining him. He sheathed his sword and crossed the distance between them. He wrapped Hiko up in a hug.

Hiko wrapped Jiraiya in a hug, then surrounded them both with gold dust.

Jiraiya smiled lopsidedly at the gold dust shield glittering around them. "Pretty."

He turned his smile on Hiko. "You're pretty, too."

Hiko blushed happily.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

Jiraiya clung to Hirohiko, abruptly coming down off his adrenaline. "You made all the difference," he said, his voice wavering. "You did what no one else could do. You protected me, too." Tears leaked down his cheeks. "You made it so I didn't have to be alone out there."

Belatedly, aching in his chest told him that Orochimaru's words had scored a hit after all.

Hirohiko gazed up at him. "I wouldn't let you fight him alone," he assured him. "I wouldn't let you face him alone. You protected me, and I protected you."

Jiraiya took a deep breath and managed to stop crying, drawing comfort from the sound of Hiko's voice as much as the words. And he felt guilty, suddenly, for what Hirohiko had overheard. "I didn't get to be with Minato. Death didn't change that. It just reinforced that I would never have him the way I wanted to." He looked at Hiko uncertainly. "You're my first real relationship."

Ever. In spite of all his wishing and hoping.

Hiko nodded slowly. "That's okay. It doesn't matter what our pasts are. Only what our future is, together." He brushed tears from Jiraiya's face.

The touch of Hiko's fingers was gentle, like butterfly wings. Jiraiya fell ten times more in love with Hiko than he had been before. "Oh god, you're perfect." He couldn't describe the sweetness of having his tears brushed away by this delicate, powerful man who assured him the future was all that mattered. He kissed Hirohiko gently and slowly.

Hiko met the kiss, matching its gentle slowness, drinking Jiraiya in. Drinking life in. He wouldn't have to be alone now. He had a friend, a lover, a partner.

He pulled back and met Jiraiya's gaze. "Home?" Didn't matter which direction they went physically, only that they went together.

Jiraiya smiled and nodded, feeling warm and fuzzy from the kiss. "Home." That sounds nice. Nice word.

Hiko took his hand.

And home they went.