A Special Loss

The guards opened the door for Jiraiya, respectfully bowing. Jiraiya could not have opened the door himself anyway; his hands were full with the blonde-haired infant he carried carefully against his chest, cradled in both arms the way the nurses had shown him. He'd never held a baby before. His only experience with children was being a teacher to a group of ten-year-old genin, already half grown up and ready to face the world.

Jiraiya faced his teacher, not turning to look at the sound of the door closing behind him. "Sensei."

"Jiraiya." Sandaime gestured. "Please approach."

Jiraiya crossed the room slowly to the Hokage desk. "Please talk quietly, Sensei. Naruto-chan is asleep. It took me and the nurses two hours."

"I have summoned you here to talk about Naruto-chan's future," Sandaime said.

"I am going to take care of him now. It's what Minato would have wanted," Jiraiya said. His eyes were bright, but he managed to swallow his pain enough to keep his voice steady.

"If I don't let mothers with post partem depression take care of their children, why should I let you take care of Naruto-chan?" Sandaime asked.

Jiraiya looked at his teacher incredulously. He held Naruto a little tighter, hating the way his eyes filled with tears. "You can't…can't…" He shook his head, swallowed before his voice broke, stroked Naruto's fine blonde hair for a moment. He wouldn't cry. That would make Naruto cry. Naruto woke up at the slightest change.

When he was sure he wouldn't cry, he looked at Sandaime again. "He's all I have left. You can't. You can't take him away. Sensei…"

Sandaime shook his head. "That is precisely why I cannot let you have him. Look at yourself. You are a wreck. You cannot use a baby to keep going. That is not how parenthood works."

"But I love him." Jiraiya's voice broke in spite of all his efforts.

"Love is not enough to raise a child," Sandaime said. "I know. What happens when you are tired, when you are depressed and angry? Jiraiya, please think."

Jiraiya sniffed and looked away, his jaw clenching. "I'm his godfather. Minato said so."

"Godfathers do not normally raise their godchildren," Sandaime said gently.

"But that's what I'm supposed to do if he's not here! And he's not!" Jiraiya snapped. Then he realized his mistake. Naruto squirmed fitfully and grabbed a lock of his long white hair, grumpily whimpering. Jiraiya's eyes widened. Then he gently freed his hair from Naruto's grip and rocked his godson, whispering soothingly. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Don't worry. I'm not leaving you. I'm leaving, I'm not…not…" Tears filled his eyes again and they were harder to fight off.

Naruto burst into tears.

Sandaime stood up from his desk and crossed the floor quickly, taking Naruto into his arms. "There, there. Grandpa Hiruzen is here."

Jiraiya wiped his eyes with one hand in vain. He was crying again, much more than he had at the funeral. It hadn't been real then. It was real now. "I wasn't there. I wasn't there when the Kyuubi attacked. I wasn't there when – when Minato and Kushina gave up their lives, I wasn't there when anyone needed me, oh, god, please, let me take him. Let me be there for him. I'll do better. I promise. Sensei…"

"What happened wasn't your fault," Sandaime said. "I was here. Was I able to stop the rampage? Clearly not. Neither could any of the hundreds of shinobi here at the village. You could not have made a difference."

"I could have!" Jiraiya clenched his hands. "I could have! I know it!"

"Jiraiya, you are clearly in the bargaining stage," Sandaime said gently.

"The what?" Jiraiya was furious at his teacher's tone of voice.

"'If only I can take care of Naruto-chan well enough, I can be forgiven', ne?" Sandaime said.

Jiraiya stopped short, too angry and mortified to cry. He didn't know what to say to that.

"What is 'well enough', then?" Sandaime asked. "Babies cry. They need things, they get sick, they hurt themselves learning to walk. Babies are demanding, loud, and most of all, they are not grateful or forgiving. People have to learn those traits. You are not going to be able to satisfy Naruto-chan and get him to forgive you. He doesn't know what is going on. He will not even remember being there when his parents died. He won't know that. You can't get redemption this way."

Jiraiya was filled with a roiling sense of helplessness. "How, then?"

Sandaime looked at his student with pained sadness. "You don't need any redemption. You didn't do anything wrong. You were gone on a mission. You could not have known the village would be attacked, nor that the Kyuubi would get loose, nor that Minato and Kushina would die. You did not know the future. Therefore, you cannot carry any of the blame. Wanting to is a sign that you are not healed."

"How can I be?" Jiraiya exclaimed. "How can I ever be healed from something this horrible?"

"If you believe that, then Naruto-chan is not the way to healing," Sandaime said softly, rocking the fitful infant as he spoke. "Taking care of a baby is not rewarding work; not in the traditional sense. One takes care of a baby in order to help the baby, in order to help a child grow up in this world safely. There is no other reward. Indeed, unless explained to him, Naruto-chan will not ever understand his loss. Your loss is not equal. He does not know his parents; you do."

Jiraiya wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "Stop it."

"I am only speaking the truth," Sandaime said. "Your loss is far more deep and special than Naruto-chan's. Naruto has lost caregivers; he never knew his parents, so he will still experience the love of parents he will perceive to be very real and important. You will never have another Minato or Kushina. Your loss is special. Naruto-chan's is general."

"Shut up." Jiraiya could feel himself trembling.

"Grieve," Sandaime said gently. "Don't try to take care of a baby and snap yourself out of it. Don't try to take on so much. All the guilt in the world is not on your shoulders, unless you put it there. It is okay to let it go and grieve for a while. You are hurt; not only Naruto-chan. And certainly far worse than Naruto-chan."

"I'm not gonna go away and hide someplace to drink myself away like stupid Tsunade," Jiraiya said.

"I would not blame you if you did," Sandaime said. "Nor do I blame her."

"You – You – " Jiraiya couldn't stand it anymore. He turned on his heel and ran out of the office, wiping his eyes in vain, half blind.