It happened so fast.
Sarutobi-sensei went one way, and they went the other. He was holding off the leader of the enemy team, and the enemy leader was trying to stop them from chasing his teammates. The rain was coming down, and the fields were slick, and Jiraiya caught a glimpse of the three enemy nin running into the forest before they were gone.
He was already good and mad. Border fights. All this stupid border fighting. His pulse pounded in his ears. There's no reason!
There were reasons, lots of political reasons, but he didn't care. All that mattered was that Mist was small and Fire was big, and Mist's nin were willing to kill civilians to take land. Team Sarutobi arrived on a scene of carnage and chased the infiltrating team they found still at work.
That led them to these muddy, rain-slick fields, this dense, uninviting forest.
Civilian fighters interrupted the chase, crashing the mission. It only took a moment for the enemy nin to deal with them. Jiraiya and Tsunade lost valuable time defending the civilians, Orochimaru ran ahead, intent, and after it was over, Tsunade stayed behind to heal the injured men. She ordered Jiraiya to catch up with Orochimaru and back him up.
Jiraiya didn't have to be told, and he told her so. Then he tried to catch up. It was hard; Orochimaru was faster than him, and the Mist nin seemed faster still.
It was all so stupid.
Jiraiya's only consolation was that as he neared the place where Orochimaru had intercepted the enemy nin and begun battling them, Sarutobi-sensei's chakra flared, and the enemy leader's chakra died. That's one down.
He burst out of the forest into another clearing to see Orochimaru beheading two of the enemy nin with one stroke. The other flew at Orochimaru's back. Without thinking, Jiraiya jumped in, taking down the last man - and then he had to duck to keep from being killed by Orochimaru's katana.
Jiraiya lost his balance at the shock of it and fell to the rain-soaked ground.
"What did you do that for?" Orochimaru snarled. "I could have killed you. Don't you know when to get out of the way?"
Jiraiya scrambled to his feet and almost slipped again. The ground was mush, dirty water soaking through his sandals. He wished he'd worn boots. "You were in trouble."
"I was not in trouble." Orochimaru sheathed his katana.
"You looked like you were in trouble," Jiraiya retorted, irritated.
Orochimaru turned away and started walking back towards the forest. "Unlike some people, I can take care of myself when we get separated. Why didn't you stay with Tsunade? She could be killed."
Jiraiya couldn't help the boiling anger that exploded inside his chest. "A little gratitude would be nice!"
"For what?" Orochimaru glanced at him, but didn't stop walking. "For getting in the way?"
Jiraiya lunged forward and grabbed Orochimaru's arm. In an instant, all of the reprimands he'd ever faced ran through his head: Don't pick fights. Don't be so impulsive. Don't let him get to you. Don't get mad. Control yourself. And the crowning dressing-down by Tsunade: What are you doing! He'll kill you! He's stronger than you.
Sure enough, before he'd so much as begun to think about yanking on Orochimaru's arm and turning him around so Jiraiya could yell at him face to face, Orochimaru lashed out and punched him.
Jiraiya slammed into the ground with a splash and a hiss of rustled grass, his face throbbing. He'd impacted so hard he was winded.
Orochimaru turned to face him all on his own, paler than ever and furious.
Jiraiya struggled for words. His throat was tight. "You..."
"Don't attack me," Orochimaru spat.
"You attacked," Jiraiya retorted.
Somehow - somehow that had to do with Orochimaru's temper, once ignited - Jiraiya found himself lying on his side on the muddy grass, pummeled half to death. And Orochimaru was gone.
Jiraiya didn't even think about crying until he found out he didn't have the strength to get up. A sense of hopelessness came over him, along with the horrible feeling of cold, muddy water soaking through his clothes, and the pervasive rain tickling his face.
Tsunade showed up first. She appeared at the treeline, walking towards him, a blonde blur. Jiraiya watched as she got closer, just staring. It didn't seem real. She came up to him and knelt beside him. "Can you get up?"
"I don't know," Jiraiya said. That seemed the safest answer.
Tsunade sighed. "Well, try." She grabbed his arm and pulled.
Jiraiya groaned in pain and pulled away. "Stop that."
"I was trying to help." Tsunade let go of him and appraised him for the first time. "Didn't Orochimaru help at all?"
"What do you mean?" Jiraiya muttered. "Help? It was all him."
"Then how did you get injured?" Tsunade demanded. "If he took care of the Mist nin -" She stopped at the look on Jiraiya's face.
Jiraiya started crying, even though he always wanted to look brave in front of her.
He couldn't help it. The realization that Orochimaru hadn't said anything at all was crushing. Orochimaru had taken the time to tell Tsunade where to find him, but hadn't said anything about their fight?
Tsunade rolled him over onto his back and started healing him. "It's alright...You'll live."
Jiraiya sniffled and tried to stop crying. It was easy when he focused on how angry he was.
After a few minutes, Tsunade helped him up. "I got rid of the internal bleeding. And did you know your shoulder was dislocated?"
Jiraiya thought about his pain. "Something like that," he mumbled.
"I said, 'I knew something like that.'" Jiraiya sighed. "Just...let's get out of here."
They started walking. Or, in Jiraiya's case, limping.
"I used up most of what I had left on the civilians," Tsunade said. "Sorry."
Jiraiya grunted in reply.
After a few minutes, they re-entered the forest and retraced their path. "Did Orochimaru go get Sarutobi-sensei?" Jiraiya asked.
"I don't know," Tsunade said. "Probably. He said he was going to."
Jiraiya fell silent again. I bet if he's said anything at all it's just a bunch of lies. He felt frustrated and helpless. Everyone knew he and Orochimaru didn't always get along. When it got down to arguing, half the time Jiraiya didn't feel believed in the end - that was definitely how Tsunade usually reacted - or Sarutobi gave them both a talk. Which Jiraiya could hardly stand, since Orochimaru was the problem.
Of course, that's what he says about me.
Jiraiya had to admit that sometimes, there was so gray area. They made each other mad, they both said mean things, they exchanged blows. But this time, it's different!
The feeling of Orochimaru's and Sarutobi's chakras approaching halted Jiraiya's whole thought process. He froze in his tracks.
Tsunade gave him a frown. "What are you doing?"
"I'm waiting," Jiraiya said. "I'm tired." It was no use explaining that he was suddenly terrified to see both Sarutobi-sensei and Orochimaru.
Tsunade stopped and waited with him.
Hiruzen came around the bend the trail, Orochimaru at his side, still speaking. A small frown turned down Hiruzen's lips, and his gaze flashed from Orochimaru's face to Jiraiya's.
Jiraiya tried not to tremble, or show that he was seeing harsh reprimands in his near future. It was hard. He was terrified of what Sarutobi was going to say. He wondered if he should just start apologizing.
"He's alright, Sarutobi-sensei," Tsunade called. "Or, at least, enough so to get home without stopping somewhere."
Jiraiya didn't know what she meant for a moment. His physical condition seemed so beside the point he'd almost forgotten he had a body. He was completely consumed with the tension of having to travel home with everyone.
Orochimaru gave them a small, sardonic smile. "I'm glad of that. You know, Jiraiya, you could have been severely injured for getting in the way like that."
"Orochimaru, Tsunade, take point. We're going back to the village. Jiraiya and I will follow you at a slower pace, given his condition." Hiruzen gazed at them. "Go."
Tsunade and Orochimaru nodded. They took off without hesitation.
Jiraiya hesitated, and then walked towards Sarutobi, facing the inevitable.
Hiruzen watched his approach, reading the tension and fear off his body language. "You're still fairly badly injured. What happened?"
Jiraiya panicked at the instant urge to cry and wouldn't look his sensei in the eye. "Did he say - Did he say...what happened?" That he attacked me? Did he admit that to you? Did he say we had a fight? Or did he just say the Mist nin hurt me?
He stopped several feet shy of joining Sarutobi, tensing up in spite of himself.
"Yes," Hiruzen said. "But I want to know what you say happened."
Jiraiya looked at him reluctantly. "Why?"
"Because it matters." Hiruzen gazed at him placidly. "Because if a tree falls, the man to the east and the man to the north of it will not see it the same way. One man will say nothing was damaged other than the tree. The other will say a squirrel was killed in the process. If for no other reason than verification, I must talk to both men."
Jiraiya had to smile at the idea that two men would argue about a squirrel. He came to Sarutobi's side. "What's so important about a squirrel? A puny tree-hugging rodent...who cares?" His voice trembled, and he looked away, realizing belatedly he'd shoved all his feelings into the analogy. "It's just one more dead squirrel, and the man who cut down the tree is just going to say it fell and leave it at that. And who's going to argue? What is it worth? What if someone did say a squirrel died? Who's going to listen anyhow?"
Hiruzen stepped forward and squeezed Jiraiya's shoulder. "I notice every squirrel that dies," he said simply. "I listen to the cry in its heart as it goes . . . and I cry."
Jiraiya clenched his jaw and fought the tears welling up in his eyes every inch of the way. "Why? Who cares?" He knew he'd come to the point of his anger, and even his fear. "What if I said - " He almost took it back. In a flash of terror, he stopped, and honestly thought about burying the whole thing. Because even when he'd told the truth, and even when it was acknowledged, Orochimaru was never truly sorry. He was always just biding his time to get back at Jiraiya for talking. And he would. Either with a cutting comment, or a refusal to help, or a small physical attack.
Jiraiya looked away. "You're not gonna do anything anyway. What're you gonna do? Throw him off the team? He's important. You're not gonna do anything except make him apologize and punish him so he hates me more. And you're not gonna watch me the rest of your life. He's going to hurt me, and you're not going to be here. Because -" He didn't know why. "And then you're gonna do the whole thing over again, and when I protect myself, I get in trouble."
He started over from where he should have started over from. "Orochimaru threw a fit because I killed a guy and got in the way of his kill count. And I got mad at him for getting mad, and he threw me to the ground and started hitting me. So that's what happened."
Jiraiya took a deep breath. "To me. That's what happened."
Hiruzen nodded very slowly. "I see." He gave Jiraiya's shoulder a squeeze. "If my solution does not protect you, then tell me what you need me to do. Clearly, you feel unsafe with Orochimaru. The enmity between you is pronounced. If you feel this way, if you are hurt this way, then action must be taken."
Jiraiya slipped an arm around Hiruzen's waist and leaned against him, both because he was hurt and because he wanted the comfort. "So what're we gonna do about it?" he mumbled.
Hiruzen wrapped both arms around him gently, hugging him. "Oh, Jiraiya . . . whatever you need me to do. It sounds as though it is unsafe for you to remain on the same team together. I can transfer Orochimaru, I can transfer you, or I can dissolve the team. All of you are chuunin and can lead your own teams, after all."
"But I don't want to lead a team." Jiraiya clung to him, hard. "Please don't dissolve the team. Please, don't. I don't want you to go away."
Hiruzen reached up and stroked his hair slowly; it was soft under his hand. He hugged him tighter. "Okay, then. I will ask Niidaime to transfer Orochimaru to another team. Tobirama-sensei is very clever about these things; he'll know which team will work best for Orochimaru. And Orochimaru will never know I made the request."
Surprised relief washed out the pain in Jiraiya's chest. "He won't?"
Hiruzen shook his head. "Never. And such transfers are not uncommon."
Jiraiya rested his head against Sarutobi's shoulder. He still clung, but not as hard. Transfers are not uncommon? "Are...Are you sure he won't find out?"
He was almost back to feeling safe, but before he took that final step, he wanted to be sure. Really sure.
Hiruzen cradled Jiraiya against his shoulder. "Jiraiya . . . you belong to me. You are mine-mine to have and mine to protect. You will stay with me."
In his mind, the larger question was Jiraiya's lack of feeling safe, which was bigger than the question of the moment.
Mine? Jiraiya clung to Sarutobi, clutching his sensei's vest with both hands. Can I really belong to anybody? He thought that was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him. "Then...Then you won't leave me?"
Hiruzen pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "No, I won't. You're mine."
Jiraiya absorbed that. Then, he was finally able to cry. "I was scared. I was lying there and I couldn't move and there was nobody around. What was I supposed to do? Then Tsunade came, and she didn't understand."
Hiruzen scooped him up, carrying him over to a fallen log and sitting down. "I'm sorry, Jiraiya. I'm sorry." He held him and stroked his back.
Jiraiya cried until he hiccupped. He felt better, even though he was stuffed up from crying and felt tired and achy. "Are you going to stay forever, then?"
Hiruzen pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Hai, I will. We can laugh and talk when we're both old and white-haired." He smiled, given the dry joke about their hair.
Jiraiya sniffled and smiled. "Instead of young and white-haired?"
Hiruzen chuckled. "Hai, indeed."
Jiraiya hugged him. "I love you."
Hiruzen hugged him closely. "I love you, too."
Jiraiya closed his eyes, feeling warm and safe. At last.