Epilogue


They gathered around Yondaime's bed. Yondaime was propped up with pillows. Every flat surface in the bedroom was covered with bouquets and get well cards.

Kankuro choked back a laugh. "Guess you're more popular than you thought you were, huh, Dad?"

Yondaime smiled ruefully. "They just keep coming." He gently ran fingers over the card attached to the nearest bouquet of flowers. They were desert lilies, hibiscus, and cactus blossoms. It made a rather spectacular display, a riot of red and purple hibiscus, bright yellow cactus flowers, and white lilies. Then he smiled at his youngest son. "Of course, these ones are from Gaara."

Gaara blushed to the roots of his hair. "When one is sick and needs to get better, others send flowers. I have learned this."

Baki choked, and laughed. "Yes, well…that is an important lesson to learn. Given how we seem to put ourselves in harm's way."

"Some of us more than others," Jiraiya said, looking at Yondaime critically.

Yondaime flushed. "Well…I had to, didn't I?"

"Could've been behind the wind barrier with us, that's all I'm sayin'," Jiraiya said. "Magnetism release is a long range jutsu. You didn't need to be right there up in Orochimaru's face."

"It was more fun that way," Yondaime said lamely.

Kankuro came over and sat down on the edge of his father's bed, giving Yondaime a stern look. "Then have less fun."

"Yes, Kankuro." Yondaime winced.

"Having fun off of the battlefield is fine," Kankuro said. "Just don't put yourself in harm's way like that again."

"Well, I can't like that," Yondaime said. "Orochimaru is sealed now." He grinned in the face of Kankuro's exasperation.

"You know what I mean," Kankuro said. "No more heroics."

"I knew everything would turn out for the best," Yondaime asserted.

"Don't test my faith." Kankuro gave his father a flat look.

Yondaime swallowed his smile and grew serious. "Yes, son." He squeezed Kankuro's hand.

Kankuro felt somewhat better.

When they'd returned to Suna and taken Yondaime to the hospital to be checked out, the medical ninjas had definitively grounded him in bed. Even with Gaara saving his life, he was weak from chakra exhaustion. He could lift a pair of chopsticks. That was about it. He'd protested that if he could lift chopsticks, he could lift a pen, which meant he could go back to work, but no one had bought it.

A few days had passed, but they could tell Yondaime's chakra wasn't back up to normal. They were all taking turns enforcing Yondaime's bed rest, when they weren't gathering around Yondaime as a group. Gaara stood on one side of the bed, while Kankuro sat down on the opposite edge. Temari was clearing away any loose leaves or petals from the bouquets on their father's writing desk, trying to keep things clean. She was a hardcore feminist, but she was also OCD about things like that.

Jiraiya came through the bedroom door, dressed in a white haori with red writing on it, a giant scroll strapped to his back. He carried the golden jar that contained Orochimaru under one arm. "Just got back from the temple, Yondaime. They say it's good. The seal should last a hundred years, at least."

"That's a sobering thought," Yondaime said. "Having to renew the seal or else risk an immortal spirit creature ravaging your home."

"Sounds familiar, doesn't it?" Baki muttered.

Jiraiya laughed. "Shukaku doesn't seem to be much of a problem anymore. Gaara's got him under control."

Gaara nodded. "I have since learned that hatred does nothing but separate one from the rest of humanity. Separation breeds loneliness, and loneliness breeds more hatred. It is nothing but a cycle which is guaranteed to degrade the soul."

Jiraiya scratched his cheek, looking startled and sheepish. "About that…"

"Has your soul been degraded by your years of solitary travel?" Baki teased lightly. "I hope you'll let me shore it up for you."

Jiraiya flushed and looked away.

"We all will," Kankuro said. "You're stuck with us, now."

Jiraiya gave the floor a small, flustered smile. He considered the golden vessel in his arms. "You know…I wonder what legends people will think up about this in the years to come. They'll probably start calling Orochimaru a demon." He glanced at them. "I wonder if Shukaku started out this way: a human who turned himself into a spirit in a bid for immortality. You said Kabuto called this technique ancient."

Yondaime nodded. "I did. Kabuto did say that. He claimed it was a technique the Sage of Six Paths used."

"That's not entirely out of the question," Kankuro said. "After all, we've learned that the Sage of Six Paths was a real person…"

"That's right," Jiraiya agreed. "And maybe sometime we'll have to shift Orochimaru to a different vessel, like you guys might have done with Shukaku."

"What do you mean?" Kankuro asked. "I thought Shukaku was always kept in that tea kettle."

"There's a legend that says the first vessel that held Shukaku was an empty sake bottle," Jiraiya said. "Someone was brave enough to challenge him to a drinking contest and sealed him inside. They said it didn't count unless he drank the last drops from the bottom of the bottle, so he went inside to drink the last drops of sake and got trapped."

Yondaime laughed, surprised. "You have been soaking up local folklore, haven't you?"

"Been hard at work," Jiraiya agreed. "I love that stuff. I wasn't just gathering information on the Sound spy. I pumped the bars for local folklore, too."

Baki shook his head. "Work and pleasure always overlap for you, don't they?"

"It's more organic that way," Jiraiya said. "I like to live organically."

Baki snorted. "So that's why you're never in one place more than a few weeks at a time. You're 'organic'."

"Right," Jiraiya agreed.

"That's a great way to live," Baki said. "If you don't have any responsibilities."

Jiraiya pouted.

Kankuro grinned, relieved. They were back to ribbing each other. He'd noticed when they first got back to Suna, Baki had been in a far more protective mood. And Jiraiya hadn't had his usual smile. He wondered what words they had exchanged in the desert.

It was none of his business, but he was curious. Call it the writer in me…but I wonder if it was romantic. He'd finally found out what kind of books Jiraiya wrote by looking through the local public library, and found out they had something in common. They both wrote romance stories, and they were both men. Most of the romance market was cornered by women. Kankuro thought that had meant that his works would never be published, but Jiraiya was clearly very popular, since his most recent books were marked 'Now a bestseller!'

Kankuro briefly imagined a book of his own emblazoned with such enthusiastic support. Maybe someday…when I'm done with being a shinobi. Like Jiraiya. Jiraiya had spent many years of service before becoming a writer.

"Well, I better go." Jiraiya looked regretful.

"You're leaving?" Baki asked.

"Oh, you know…" Jiraiya hefted the golden jar and tucked it under his arm. "I've got to deliver this in person. It's going into ANBU lock-up. We're gonna bury this thing so deep it's never coming back out."

"Yeah…" Baki nodded slowly.

Jiraiya looked at his cousin-turned-brother with the same expression for a moment before putting on a bright smile. "But, hey. You guys are coming to Konoha for the Chunin Exam, right? So I'll see you soon enough."

Kankuro had forgotten about the Chunin Exam. Oh, yeah…I guess it's on, now that we've defeated Orochimaru and stopped the war from happening. Shimeru's testimony, plus the golden jar with Orochimaru inside, was enough to thoroughly burn the Council on the idea of a war with Konoha any time soon.

Baki took a deep breath, and then smiled. "You're right." He patted Jiraiya's shoulder. "I'll see you soon enough, Ototo."

Jiraiya looked at Baki with mock indignation. He set the golden jar down on Yondaime's nightstand, a space Kankuro kept trying to keep clear for glasses of water and things like that. "What, Ototo doesn't deserve a hug?" He pulled Baki into a bear hug. "Sure I do. C'mon…don't be stingy, Niisan. Hug your Ototo goodbye. I'm from Konoha, remember? It's normal over there."

Baki sighed, rolled his eyes with exasperation, and gave Jiraiya a hug.

Jiraiya chuckled. "That's better."

Kankuro snorted. "Hugs aren't unheard of on this side of the desert," he pointed out. Even though there was a lot of space between Konoha and Suna, Konoha was often called their 'brother village across the desert'.

"You'd never know it to look at Baki's family interacting," Jiraiya said. He pulled away and demonstrated, hovering his hands above Baki's shoulders. "Ah…well…good job." He gave a dry little cough and awkwardly patted Baki's shoulder. Then he grinned at everyone. "They're like that."

"All families are different," Baki protested mildly. He took Jiraiya's arm. "Let me walk you to the door, at least."

Jiraiya beamed. "Okay." He couldn't put up less resistance to the idea.

Baki grinned at Yondaime. "I'll be back in an hour."

"An hour?" Temari asked.

"That's about how long it takes to end a conversation with Jiraiya," Baki said.

"Hey…" Jiraiya pouted. "I'm not that long winded."

"No, but you're practicing," Baki said.

Jiraiya laughed. "Fair enough." He waved. "Bye, all!"

"We look forward to seeing you again," Yondaime said, giving Jiraiya a soft smile.

Kankuro still thought it was a shame that one of his father's only friends was a world-traveling spy who belonged to Konoha.

Jiraiya and Baki exited the room together.

Kankuro looked to his father. "I guess this means we better get packing for the Chunin Exam. If we don't leave tomorrow, we won't get there in time."

Yondaime nodded slowly. "That is exactly what this means."

"It'll be difficult," Kankuro said. Difficult being separated from you. You're not going to be coming until the second half of the exam.

"It won't be that difficult," Temari objected. "If we could survive this chaos, we can definitely kick butt at the real exam. I mean, nothing's going to be as hard as defusing a war and fighting Orochimaru."

"But we didn't do most of that," Gaara said. "We had to sit through the worry of what would happen to our village. That is merely a psychological test."

"He's right," Kankuro said. "We don't know what all is in the Forest of Death. We've only heard rumors it's bad, and we'll have to fight other teams. That's not the same as being prepared. I mean, some of those genin might be really strong, like us. They might have overprotective fathers who deferred their promotions until they were overqualified, too."

Yondaime gave him a look. "It's not over-protectiveness. I can't afford to lose my children. Karura would come back from the grave to kill me if I did anything to endanger a hair on your heads. You're the most precious things Karura and I have."

Gaara climbed onto the bed and settled into their father's arms, somberly seeking hugs.

Kankuro had to smile at that. "I think we're going to be just fine."

The sight of Yondaime hugging Gaara proved that.