It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Sixteen

In the aftermath of the attack, Naruto talks with the Nine-tails, Sasuke frets over Jiraiya, and Jiraiya has to deal with Nagato and Konan (kleenex advisory). Drama, I-4

Kakashi sat by Naruto’s bed, reading and watching the clock, and wondering who was going to appear next. He calculated that his order for Sasuke and Sakura to get some more rest would hold for another two hours or so, Hinata was on duty keeping watch on the sea, Chouji was watching over Shikamaru, and Ino had been in three people ago. According to the averages he’d calculated over the past thirty-eight hours, the next person to stop and check on Naruto should be another from Leaf, but who was most likely?

It was a usefully distracting thing to think about while Naruto lay unconscious, and Kakashi had further calculated that he was getting almost three times the information, sitting here talking to visitors, that he otherwise would have heard as commander of the Leaf contingent.

Right on time, plus or minus five minutes, there was a tap at the door and it was Iruka who looked in. Kakashi nodded, satisfied; he’d guessed either Iruka or Sai, and the latter probability wasn’t for reasons he would like. Sai had been watching Naruto the entire time they’d been here, and Kakashi had his suspicions about exactly whose orders the boy was under.

“How is he?” Iruka asked softly.

Kakashi smiled behind his mask; definitely better a visit from Iruka. “Still asleep. Still recovering. Maeda has invented, at last count, five new names to call Naruto while attending him, and that seems like a good sign.” At Iruka’s blink he elaborated, “Maeda only yells at his patients once they’re out of danger, I’ve noticed."

Iruka came to sit carefully on the edge of Naruto’s bed, as if he didn’t want to wrinkle the rough, blue blanket, and brushed some unruly blond hair back with a gentle hand.

“How is Shikamaru?” Kakashi asked, offering a little distraction in turn.

Iruka flushed. “Ah. That’s what I was coming to report, actually. He’s conscious, and the other medic from Mist says he’ll be fine once he recovers his strength.” Iruka’s eyes darkened. “He drained himself completely, holding that Shadow Binding so long. But,” Iruka brightened a little, “I think it helped in the long run. Being so instrumental in defending Naruto from Akatsuki, I mean. He seems a little more at peace, now.”

“Good,” Kakashi said, and meant it. He hadn’t been thrilled with the idea of having another revenge-mad shinobi under his command right after Sasuke had finally settled down. “And how are the prisoners?”

Iruka frowned down at the bed. “Nagato is still out, even deeper than Naruto. Maeda-san judges that he’s in a coma and can’t say whether he’ll actually come out of it. There’s been some discussion of asking Motoki-san, the interrogation specialist Valley brought, to attempt entering his mind.”

“Hm.” Kakashi crossed an ankle over his knee, leaning back in his rickety camp chair to think about the things Valley’s Yuzuki had said when she’d visited yesterday. “From what I hear, Konan might be a surer target. As long as we agree to keep Nagato alive, I expect she’d be willing to tell us whatever we want.” He tapped a finger on his knee and ordered, “Mention that to Darui-san, when you go back out.” After a moment of hesitation he added, “It is still Darui-san, isn’t it?”

Iruka bowed his head. “Jiraiya-sama still says that he isn’t objective enough to make decisions about Nagato and Konan, yes.” He sighed, one hand sneaking out to close on Naruto’s forearm. “It must be extremely difficult for him, to face one of his own students who’s run so very mad.”

Bad luck had certainly seemed to attend the students of the Hokage and candidates for generations, Kakashi reflected. Sarutobi and Orochimaru. Jiraiya and Nagato. Minato-sensei and Obito, and the Fourth hadn’t lived long enough to teach his own son at all. Kakashi could only hope he and Tsunade had broken the chain. “Maybe I should send Sasuke to see Jiraiya, next time he shows up down here,” he mused.

Iruka laughed at that. “Sasuke has been in to see him more than once. There’s usually yelling. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it all the way across the building, here.”

“I think they chose this for the hospital building because of the thick walls,” Kakashi murmured, amused. “Speaking of yelling,” he added, cocking his head. Yes, that sounded like Karin’s voice coming down the hall, all right.

“…don’t understand, what I do is a bloodline talent,” she was saying as she swept into the room followed by Darui. “I wind it up and let it go, it’s not like what a medic does! So what if Naruto’s system is too messed up to send the chakra where it needs to go? What if it goes to the Nine-tails instead?! That would just screw the guy up even more! It’s not a good risk until he’s awake again.”

Darui sighed. “Well, it was worth asking.” He nodded to Kakashi. “How’s the kid doing?”

Kakashi checked the clock; this was earlier than the next visitor was due, by his estimate. Darui must have a particular reason for coming. “He’s sleeping normally, if unwakeably. Has something come up?”

Darui leaned against the wall, arms folded, as Karin drifted over to fuss with Naruto’s blanket. “I hear that his seal changed, after he transformed. Is that normal for Konoha’s hosts?” Unspoken was the second half of the question or is it something to worry about?, and Kakashi set his book aside and folded his hands as he considered how best to answer.

“The Leaf’s hosts have not, previously, manifested the Nine-tails,” he said at last. “So this isn’t exactly normal, no. But I don’t think it’s cause for alarm. The Eight Trigrams seal is made up of two subsidiary seals. One of those was released, but the other remains.” He hesitated, but the fact was there was only one person on the Island who knew more, no matter how much that person wanted privacy right now. “I didn’t know his mother well, but Jiraiya-san did. He can tell you if I’m right or not. I suspect the seals are layered, one to contain the Nine-tails in the body of the host, and the second to hold it back from the host’s spirit. I believe Naruto released the second one.”

“Shredded it is more like,” Karin muttered, looking down at Naruto penetratingly. “Just look at this mess! It’s like he just went and ripped it apart with his bare will!”

Kakashi’s mouth quirked ruefully. “Yes. He probably did.”

Karin looked up to glower at him. “Well, teach him how to do it better!” She went back to fussing with the blanket, eyes softening. “He has lovely chakra, it deserves better.”

Kakashi stored that observation away to repeat to Naruto when he woke up, in case he needed to fluster his student into compliance with the medics. He opened a hand at Darui. “So I don’t think there’s any risk to the Nine-tails’ containment, though I imagine it and Naruto will benefit from some further instruction if B-san is willing.”

The hard line of Darui’s shoulders relaxed. “Good,” he murmured. “That’s good.” He closed his eyes for a moment, looking as if he wanted to just go to sleep right there against the wall. Clearly, it had been a hard day and a half for him, cleaning up after Akatsuki’s attack. Kakashi sympathized completely, and with a reasonable amount of terror as he stared down the length of a blade named “Rokudaime Hokage”, which was going to be even worse.

A rap on the door interrupted them, and B stuck his head through. “So, hey, how’s the kid?”

Kakashi checked the clock reflexively and smiled. Right on time.

For the first little while, Naruto thought he was dreaming. He was standing on bottomless water, and every movement stirred ripples across it. The sky was light; not blue, just light. There were huge rocks here and there, like some kind of rock garden only with water instead of gravel under it. And that was all.

At least he thought that was all. But eventually he realized that the Nine-tails was lying next to him apparently sleeping, chin resting on one paw, and had been for a long time; he had no idea how he could have not noticed.

One huge ear flicked at him. “Awake at last?” the fox rumbled.

“I… guess so?” Naruto looked around. “Is this real?”

The fox snorted, rippling the water in front of his nose. “It’s your spirit, idiot kit, you tell me.”

“Huh.” Naruto sat down crosslegged beside the fox’s head. “So how come we’re both in here?”

“Because your spirit hasn’t repaired itself sufficiently for your consciousness to touch the world again.”

Naruto puzzled at that. “So… I’m injured, huh? From the seal?”

“Indeed.” One red eye opened and looked at him sternly. “What kind of fool tries to tear apart a seal instead of releasing it?”

“Well, I don’t know how to release it,” Naruto explained reasonably. “I’m not much good with seals, really, and besides no one ever taught me Eight Trigrams.”

The fox actually clapped a paw over his face.

Naruto rubbed a hand over the back of his head, sheepish. “I’ll, um, learn it, okay?” He supposed he really should if he meant to release the fox before his death, which he kind of did at this point. “Oh, hey, that reminds me.” He leaned back on his hands looking up at the fox. “You said your yin chakra was sealed, right? What seal is that? I’ll look that one up too.” Maybe the fox would be less cranky once his chakra was properly balanced again and not chained up or whatever.

The fox lifted his head to look down at him, unreadable. “The Ten Stems Twelve Branches Seal,” he said after a long moment. “It creates a separate world to contain whatever is sealed, and that world is forever severed from this one.”

Naruto stopped still, eyes wide. “My dad… did that?” he asked in a small voice.

The fox turned his head away to look out over the water and stone. “Minato of the Leaf apologized,” he said at last, the rumble of his voice distant. “He said he knew I was being controlled. But that seal was one of the few that would last beyond his death, and the only one of those that would not cause me great pain.”

Naruto slumped a little. “I guess I can understand that, considering Madara was still trying to get you,” he said slowly. Abruptly he sat back up. “Hey, wait a minute. If it’s completely separated, and that was your spiritual strength, that means…” He stared up at the fox, face cold as his blood drained out of it and the magnitude of that kind of amputation on a spirit creature hit him. “Nine-tails!”

A shudder ran through the length of the fox and he threw up his muzzle. “Why the hell do you think I’ve been so damn infuriated all this time?!” he howled, fit to break the sky with the sound.

Naruto winced, but he also reached out again, gripping the fox’s foreleg with both hands. “I said I’d heal you and I will,” he yelled, and sighed as the echoes of the fox’s howl died away across the water. “Tsunade-baachan will know how to do it. She could even heal someone from something like the Dead Demon Consuming seal. I’ll get her help.”

The fox’s ears and brows both went up. “You think she’ll actually consent?”

Naruto scowled, folding his arms stubbornly. “It’s not right! It’s not right to keep your chakra unbalanced like that! I don’t care how important it was to stop you then, it isn’t right!” He set his jaw. “I’ll convince her.”

After a moment, the fox snorted and settled back down beside him. “Somehow I’m not surprised.”

Naruto grinned a little and leaned against his shoulder, ignoring the growl he got for that. “Good. You’re learning.”

Sasuke sat perched in the broad stone window of Jiraiya’s room in the makeshift hospital, watching his teacher brood. It wasn’t really obvious, he supposed, not like the way he brooded himself, or the way Kakashi-sensei sometimes did. But Jiraiya’s eyes were distant and despite his smooth expression there were tiny, tight lines at the corners of his mouth. Yelling hadn’t worked so far, to stop those lines. It was time to try something more serious, and hope he got it right. He wished Naruto were awake to help; he always seemed to get it right without thinking.

Sasuke sighed and pulled up a knee and wrapped his arms around it, looking out the window at the sun falling over smashed trees and walls. “So he’s more important than we are?” he asked quietly. From the corner of his eye he saw Jiraiya start.

“Of course not,” the old man said gruffly. “Nagato is just… a little more obtrusive at the moment. He’s the one who just tried to kill the lot of us, after all.”

“Ah.” Sasuke let that lie for a moment before he added, “So failure is more significant than success. After all,” he went on before Jiraiya could protest. “Naruto just saved the lot of us.” And Jiraiya was one of Naruto’s teachers, too.

Jiraiya closed his mouth and slumped back against the pillows folded up behind him. “I think I taught you a little too well,” he grumbled.

A corner of Sasuke’s mouth tugged up; he had to admit there was some definite satisfaction in turning his teacher’s annoyingly thought-provoking techniques back around on him. “Yes, you did. So obviously you can’t be a failure as a teacher.”

Jiraiya hunched down a bit, a lot the way Naruto did when he was getting stubborn, and Sasuke snorted. He was quiet for a while, watching the Island’s gray and brown birds flitting through the rearranged forest around the encampment. At last he said, quietly, “When we caught up with Itachi… to make it right, to make it the justice of my clan as well as my village, I had to outlaw him. I had take responsibility for Uchiha to do that, and for a while I thought that meant I was responsible for him too. But I wasn’t. I’m not. It was his choices and actions that outlawed him and no matter…” Sasuke stopped and had to swallow before he could go on, husky, sunlight blurring in his eyes, “no matter how much I loved him, that was him. Not me. And not Uchiha.” He blinked his eyes clear again, still looking outward while he listened to the silence inside the room. Finally he added, softly, “It was something you said that made me realize that.”

When he finally looked around, Jiraiya had his head bowed over crossed arms. “Are you saying that there’s responsibility I need to take here?” the old man asked.

Sasuke thought about that, about what it meant to teach. To lead. “Yes,” he said at last. “Just not the kind you’ve been thinking of.”

“Ruthless, aren’t you?” Jiraiya murmured. A laugh caught Sasuke, at that.

“Yeah. That’s one of the things Uchiha is.” He swung his legs off the window and came to stand beside Jiraiya’s bed, looking down with a tiny smile. “I decided that it would be.”

Just as Jiraiya had told him to decide.

The answering smile, when Jiraiya looked up, had a wry tilt to it, but the tight lines at the corners of his mouth were easing. Jiraiya unfolded his arms and flexed his shoulders. “All right, you’ve said your piece. Don’t you have some duty or other to get to?”

Sasuke let himself thump back against the wall with a sigh, reminded. “Not really, not until—”

The door crashed open, hard enough to chip the stone of the wall, and Sakura stood panting in the opening, eyes wide and hair wild. “Sasuke! Naruto’s awake!”

Fear that Sasuke had been pushing relentlessly down for two days snapped loose and shot Sasuke forward at a dead run, sprinting down the halls and pushing off walls as he took the corners. Sakura was right on his heels as they piled into Naruto’s room, and a corner of Sasuke’s mind was pleased to note that Jiraiya was right behind her. But most of him was lit up with the pure relief of seeing his friend, his family, sitting up in bed with blue eyes open and tracking what was around him. There was a yelp from somewhere as Sasuke skidded to a stop by the bed and seized Naruto’s shoulders. “Are you okay?” he demanded.

Naruto blinked at him. “Um…”

“That,” Maeda-san grated from where he was wedged up against the wall by the force of Sasuke and Sakura’s entrance, “is what we were determining. If you don’t mind.”

“I’m okay,” Naruto assured them as Sasuke reluctantly let go of him and edged back. “Honest. Taking off half the seal was just a lot of work on top of everything else.” He looked past them and broke into a sunny smile. “Ero-sennin can wiggle his toes and everything, though, right?”

“I’m completely fine,” Jiraiya assured him, smiling back with his own relief clear in his eyes. “Thanks to you, I understand.”

As I told you already,” Maeda pointed out. “Now if everyone doesn’t shut up and keep out of my way, I’m going to throw all of you out of the room until this examination is done.”

Sasuke and Sakura reluctantly backed off under his medical glower to stand against the wall next to Kakashi-sensei, who was watching the whole performance with amusement clear in the crinkle of his eye. As Maeda prodded at Naruto and made him stand on one foot and grip things, though, Sasuke and Sakura exchanged a questioning look, starting to be worried again. Naruto wasn’t acting like himself. He was cooperating quietly and hadn’t demanded food once, so far.

“All right,” Maeda said at last, “your chakra seems to have replenished itself and you have less weakness than I’d have expected after fifty hours asleep.” He stood back with his hands on his hips, surveying his patient. “I guess all the legends about the Uzumaki clan were true.”

Naruto winced just a little at that, and Sasuke frowned. He knew that wince—knew it from the inside. Naruto was worried about his family or clan for some reason.

Naruto nodded along quietly as Maeda listed the things he wasn’t supposed to do (exert himself) or was supposed to do (eat and exercise lightly) for the next week, and, as soon as Maeda finished, Naruto looked over at Jiraiya.

“Hey. You… you knew my parents, right? Pretty well?”

“Very well, I’d say,” Jiraiya answered, brows raised. “Is there something you need to know?”

Naruto chewed on his lip and Sasuke abandoned the wall to come lay a hand on his shoulder even as Sakura tugged Naruto back down to the edge of the bed and sat beside him with an arm around him. Naruto’s shoulders were tight under his hand.

“It’s… I mean, I know you weren’t there, and no one really saw much of the fight, but…” Naruto wound his fingers together and clasped them between his knees, looking down at them. “Nine-tails says my dad cut away his yin chakra. Sealed it with Ten Stems Twelve Branches. And I just… why? Why would he do something that extreme, that permanent?”

Maeda’s breath hissed in past his teeth, and Kakashi-sensei’s smile-crinkles vanished into a level, waiting look. Sasuke slid onto the bed behind Naruto, pressing close along with Sakura to support their partner.

Jiraiya let out a slow breath, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Naruto. Tsunade has taught you compassion and the strength to heal, and those are good things. But she’s also taught you to kill hasn’t she?”

Naruto nodded, watching Jiraiya with dark eyes. “When there’s no other way.”

“When there’s no other way, yes,” Jiraiya repeated, gently. “The Nine-tails had just attacked the village for a second time, and killed all too many of our mature shinobi. If he was being controlled, it was, in a way, all the worse. That meant it might well happen again, because we hadn’t caught his controller yet. And once Madara had escaped… what else could Minato do, to protect his village, but ensure that the Nine-tails would be weakened? And I know he would have wanted to protect you as much as possible, to ensure the Nine-tails couldn’t overwhelm you while you were a baby.”

“If he worried that much, why did he seal it in me at all?” Naruto muttered. “Why not someone who could agree to it?”

Jiraiya sighed and rocked forward in his chair to lay a hand on Naruto’s knee. “I believe there were two reasons for that. One was that your bloodline was the only one in the village with a proven ability to hold the Nine-tails without damage to yourself. And the other…” Jiraiya smiled a little. “He believed in you. I know that for certain.”

Naruto swallowed hard and Sakura tightened her arm around him. “When there’s no other way,” he said, husky. “That… that’s why my dad apologized to Nine Tails, I guess.”

“You know,” Sakura said, hesitantly, “he might have thought it wouldn’t be permanent. Chakra does regenerate, a lot more often than the body alone. And Ten Branches Twelve Stems wouldn’t have the complications some of the other permanent seals do. That would just… cut it away. Maybe he thought the fox could grow it back in time.”

“It’s not impossible,” Maeda agreed, watching Naruto with a medical sort of frown. “It would take hundreds of years, most likely, for an amputation on that scale and for something as powerful as a tailed beast. But it’s not impossible.”

Naruto straightened up, and Sasuke breathed a silent sigh of relief, feeling his tension turn into more familiar determination. “Right, then. I hope he did think that; but, whatever he thought, I’ll make it happen. And a lot faster than a few hundred years, too!”

“Not right away!” Maeda snapped, looking seriously alarmed. “Not this week, not next week, not this month! You will not engage in major healings for at least six weeks, is that clear?”

Naruto looked over his shoulder at the man, pouting. “I wasn’t gonna do it right away.”

“Yes,” Maeda said, eyes narrowing. “You were.”

Naruto hunkered down guiltily and Sakura broke into helpless giggles against his shoulder. “He’s gotten to know you,” she said, grinning.

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t overtax himself,” Sasuke assured the medic. And, when Naruto stirred under his hands in protest, added blandly, “I’m sure the Hokage will want to be involved.”

Naruto winced, probably in anticipation of what his teacher would say about everything he’d been doing lately, which had been more or less the idea. Sasuke nodded to himself, satisfied, and glanced over at his own teacher.

Jiraiya was sitting up straight again, like he knew what his spine was there for, and his smile was finally more than just a stretch of his mouth. Sasuke settled against Naruto’s back, finally relaxing. All his people were better, now.

“So, hey,” Naruto said, straightening up again. “Is B-san okay? What happened with him? What happened while I was sleeping?” His stomach growled, and he added without pausing for breath, “I want food, you can tell me what happened over food, right?”

Jiraiya laughed. “He’s recovered,” he told Maeda, and stood up. “Sakura and Sasuke can fill you in over lunch.” His eyes met Sasuke’s for a moment. “I have some other things to see to, right now.”

Sasuke smiled a little. “Come on,” he told Naruto, and added as they turned down the hall, “B is fine. Not that the Akatsuki woman was easy to deal with, from what everyone said, but it sounds like Temari and Kurotsuchi of the Rock make a very good team against a paper user…”

Kakashi watched Jiraiya watching their three young shinobi leave, shadowed by Maeda, most likely to make sure Naruto ate as well as talked. The old man looked more awake and alive than he had for days; good.

“So,” Jiraiya murmured, folding his arms. “When is Tsunade getting here?”

Kakashi straightened in his chair, startled. “Ah…”

Jiraiya turned to look at him, one corner of his mouth quirked up. His eyes were sharp again. “Her student does something most think is impossible and then knocks himself unconscious transforming completely? Don’t try to tell me you didn’t send a bird to her immediately. When’s she due?”

Kakashi relaxed back into his chair with a sigh of heartfelt relief at the return of that sharpness. “Day after tomorrow, I expect, as close as the Turtle is to the Fire coast.” And he’d been going to set her on Jiraiya if Sasuke hadn’t been able to get through before then. He smiled behind his mask. “Something you wanted to do before then?”

“Not particularly, but it’s something I need to do anyway.” One of Jiraiya’s hands drifted back to touch his main scroll. “I need to talk to Nagato.”

“He’s still unconscious,” Kakashi observed neutrally. Would Jiraiya really…?

“There are ways to deal with that.”

Kakashi searched Jiraiya’s face, finding lines of determination and a little grimness, but not the shock and despair that had made the man’s eyes so empty and distant lately. “Is this something the whole command group should hear?” he asked quietly.

Jiraiya sighed. “Yes, I expect it is.”

Kakashi bowed his head to their commander, vanishing his book. “I’ll get them.”

By the time he rounded everyone up and came along with Darui and Samui to the low building that had been turned into the mission’s prison, Jiraiya was already finishing his argument with the younger of Mist’s two medics.

“…clearly understood that I think this is unwise,” the young man was saying, frowning as he stood in the doorway to Nagato’s room.

“It is. It’s also necessary,” Jiraiya told him flatly, and the boy finally sighed and stood aside.

“Jiraiya-san is recovered?” Darui murmured to Kakashi, very quietly. Kakashi nodded just a bit, and smiled to himself as the tight line of Darui’s shoulders eased. Jiraiya had led them well so far, on this mission, and just about everyone had gotten to at least respect him. Half the inquiries he’d fielded about Naruto’s recovery had somehow managed to include a segue to Jiraiya.

And now, he suspected, they were about to get another reason for that respect.

The woman, Konan, looked up from her chair at Nagato’s bedside as they all filed into the long room where she and Nagato were being held. She looked different without her Akatsuki robe, less like a cipher and more familiar to them all—a mature kunoichi in snug halter and pants that showed hard muscles and the straightness of her spine. Her mouth flinched when she saw Jiraiya and she looked back down at the Wood cuffs that Yasumori Takuma was currently holding on her wrists. “Jiraiya-san,” she said, level and quiet.

“Konan,” he greeted her steadily and looked down at the figure on the bed, face still hollow with the chakra he’d consumed and expended. “Nagato is still unconscious?” At her nod he sighed. “I’m going to have to wake him.”

Her head jerked up at that, cloud-gray eyes wide. “I can tell you whatever you need to know!” she protested. “Don’t…!” She bit it off as he touched her hair gently, where she had worn her paper flower.

“No, Konan,” Jiraiya told her gently. “I’m afraid you can’t tell me this.”

“It was Yahiko’s death,” she whispered, staring up at him. “And if Nagato’s plan could keep that kind of thing from happening—over and over again!—how could I not help?”

“Even when your own hands made it happen, over and over again, ever since you joined Akatsuki?”

“And how are you different?” she ripped back at him.

Jiraiya crouched down in front of her, wrapping his hands around hers. “I’m different because I keep trying,” he said softly. “Instead of giving in to despair because there’s no simple answer.” He gave her a wry, tilted smile. “Not one that doesn’t involve destroying everything, at least. Destruction is simple, I’ll give you that. But it won’t actually fix anything. I don’t know whether I can fix this either,” he went on, nodding to Nagato’s still body, “but I’ll try. That’s the only thing that truly lets us move forward. Remember that, all right?”

She bit her lip hard, staring at him with fierce, wounded eyes, and finally, slowly nodded. Kakashi watched the gathered shinobi, the smile on Kitsuchi’s face and the impatience on Kurotsuchi’s, the relief in Darui’s eyes and the respect in Haruto of the Grass’, Tomita of the Sound’s quiet waiting and the way Kankurou drew nearer his sister and rested a hand on her back though neither of their expressions changed in the slightest. The part of him that had still been on guard, waiting to see whether Jiraiya’s incapacitation these past days would break his ability to command the mission, finally eased.

Jiraiya straightened and turned to the Yasumori siblings. “Will you be able to hold your bindings on him, if I can wake him?”

“Both of us together should, since they’re already in place,” Yuzuki answered, folding her hands into the Snake to match her sibling. “Go ahead.”

Kakashi perked up when Jiraiya summoned two small and old-looking toads. He’d heard that Jiraiya had a technique he used with his summons, but he’d never seen it or spoken himself with anyone who had.

He thought, with some hidden amusement, he might understand why when Jiraiya changed, eyes turning slotted, chin hairy, nose large and warty, because at the first muffled “Eugh…” from Samui Jiraiya’s shoulders slumped. He actually looked mournful, alarming face and all, until the female toad jabbed him in the ear with one purple elbow.

“Get your mind back on the job,” she ordered briskly, and Jiraiya sighed and straightened.

He looked far more imposing when he stepped forward and held his hands out over Nagato, and those strange eyes turned distant. Karin gasped, one hand pressed tight over her mouth when Kakashi glanced over at her.

“What?” Souta of the Grass murmured.

“He’s… that’s… that’s nature energy,” Karin whispered, staring. “Unformed! Unchanged! How is it not… oh.” She pushed her glasses up her nose with a slow breath. “The toads are channeling it for him, so it doesn’t burn him out. Still. To handle that much of it—” she broke off with a choked sound as Jiraiya lowered his hands to Nagato’s chest.

“Nagato,” Jiraiya called, and Kakashi flipped his forehead protector up abruptly to watch with his Sharingan because he swore the name had made the room ripple, even to normal sight. With the Sharingan, he could see the riptide of chakra Jiraiya was handling more clearly and understood why Karin was leaning back against the stone wall, trembling.

He could also see that Konan was tense and poised on the edge of attacking, cuffs or no cuffs, and when he spoke it was as much to her as to the rest of the command group. “He’s reminding Nagato’s body and mind of how it fits into the world. Like digging a hole deeper so water flows down into it.” And if he lost control of that chakra-form he was holding to make the space of Nagato’s body-and-soul resonate, Nagato would burn out like tinder in an instant. But he didn’t think this was the moment to mention that part.

Seconds ticked by, stretching the atmosphere of the room tighter and tighter, and when Nagato finally stirred and Jiraiya lifted his hands, a shiver ran through the entire group. Konan pushed forward off her chair to kneel by Nagato’s bed, bound hands closing tight on his shoulder.

“Nagato,” Jiraiya called again, quietly this time. Slowly, Nagato’s eyes opened, blank and dark as he stared up at Jiraiya.

“Why am I alive?” he finally asked, voice rough and cracking.

“Because Naruto is more stubborn than you and the Nine-tails put together, I’d say,” Jiraiya answered dryly, which provoked a rustle of amusement from everyone who’d had to deal with Naruto during this mission. More soberly, he asked, “Did you intend to die?”

Nagato’s eyes shifted to look up at the ceiling. “That would be one form of peace.”

“Nagato,” Konan whispered, fierce denial ringing through even that single word. After a fumbling moment, Nagato lifted both his bound hands to rest on hers, on his shoulder.

“I would have stopped it,” he husked. "The pain."

“No,” Jiraiya said quietly, “you would only have changed the shape of it. Just as many would have died. Just as many would have grieved. Nothing would truly have changed.” He sighed and released his technique, melting back into his familiar form, and now Kakashi could see more clearly the sorrow etching age’s lines deeper into his face. “Nagato,” he said, softly, reaching out a hand to the thin young man on the bed, “if you can’t do any more than what you have, you don’t have to. It’s all right.”

Kakashi frowned behind his mask, trying to make sense of that, hearing a whisper of puzzlement from the command group behind him.

“What else is my life for, then?” Nagato asked. “Why else am I alive and not Yahiko? Why else do I have these eyes? You said it yourself.”

Jiraiya sat heavily on the side of the bed. “I never meant to lay that kind of fate on you. To find peace for the world isn’t the kind of burden any one person can carry alone. We all carry it together.”

Nagato laughed at that, breathy and bitter. “The only place everyone together is carrying the world is down into blood and death.”

Jiraiya looked down at him thoughtfully. “After so long with Akatsuki, I’m not surprised you think so,” he finally said, “but consider that you are still alive. That was Naruto’s doing, and Naruto himself is still alive and sane because of his team, his yearmates, his teachers, the friends he’s made in his village and in others.” Jiraiya’s mouth quirked. “He’ll tell you, if you ever ask him, that he’s going to become Hokage and change things. Everything. The village and the ninja and international politics and the nature of humanity. But he’s only added all those bigger things once he started making more friends and allies.” He reached out and rested one broad, roughened hand on Nagato’s chest, over his heart. “What friends and allies do you have, to help you carry this?”

Nagato was looking at Jiraiya again, instead of the ceiling, uncertain now, clinging to Konan’s hands. “After Yahiko died? Konan.”

“And me,” Jiraiya added gently, and Nagato’s chest heaved with the abrupt breath he sucked in. Kakashi thought those fixed, ringed eyes filmed with water for a moment. “But even then,” Jiraiya went on as though he hadn’t noticed, “that isn’t enough to carry such a large burden.” He smiled. “So it’s all right to put it down. It’s all right.”

Now Kakashi understood what Jiraiya had said earlier, and was impressed all over again by Jiraiya’s compassion and insight; truly, this was the teacher who had saved Sasuke from his own demons. All around the room, he saw shoulders fall and crossed arms loosen and eyes widen with similar understanding. Karin, he was a little amused to note, was positively blushing as she watched Jiraiya.

“It took Naruto to remind me, and Sasuke to make me listen,” Jiraiya said quietly, “but all we can do, any of us, is the best we can at the time. And then we have to keep trying to make the outcome better. That’s the trick. Whether it’s the results of our own actions or our parents’ or even our opponents’, we have to keep trying to make it come out better. That’s how we move forward, Nagato; not carried on the back of one person, but hand to hand down the years, all of us going on as best we can.” He leaned forward and rested his hand over Nagato’s and Konan’s. “All you have to be is your own pair of hands, alongside all those of your friends. That’s all.”

“Is it really all right, after all this? Can I really stop?” Nagato asked, suddenly sounding very young. He looked from Jiraiya to his partner. “Konan?”

Konan’s lashes were wet and Kakashi saw Yuzuki’s hands slide quietly into the Ram as Konan wrapped her suddenly freed arms around Nagato. “You can stop,” she whispered against his hair. “It will be all right. I’m sorry I didn’t see.”

Nagato laughed unsteadily, pressing his face against her shoulder. “I’m the one with the eyes, and I didn’t either,” he said, soft and muffled. Jiraiya rested his hand on Konan’s head, watching them with soft eyes and for a long moment there was no other sound in the room than the two partners finding each other again.

Finally, though, Darui stirred. “I hate to be the one who breaks this up, but… I really don’t think the Kage and Masters will be all right with two ex-Akatsuki members wandering around loose, even if they say they’re not interested in world conquest any more.”

“Ah.” Jiraiya looked just a little shifty. “Well, as to that. I thought, you know, there are theoretical techniques that can suppress chakra expression. And I expect Tsunade will be here to check on Naruto any day. If she could do that, they could return to Leaf with me…”

Konan sat up, wiping her eyes with the back of a hand. “We don’t belong to the Leaf, though,” she said softly, still looking down at Nagato, one hand stroking back his hair.

“No, you don’t.” Choujuurou stepped forward from the back of the group where he usually wound up, and people parted before the levelness of his gaze. “You belonged to the Rain once. Is that still so?”

Nagato frowned a little, and it was Konan who met Choujuurou’s eyes, just as steady as he was. “Hidden Rain is still my home.”

Choujuurou nodded as though he’d expected to hear that, and looked around at the command group. “Even when Kisame-senpai was one of Akatsuki, even when he was killed in their service, he was still of the Mist. His body and sword were welcomed home. Let them return to Hidden Rain.”

“Hanzou will just kill them,” Jiraiya objected, and then paused. “Well.” He scratched his nose thoughtfully. “Probably. It’s hard to tell with him, sometimes. He does respect fighting spirit.” He smiled crookedly, looking down at Konan’s lifted chin and straight back.

“You said change was the work of many hands.” Konan looked back at Nagato, hands tightening around his. “We were not alone, in Rain. You know we weren’t.”

“I don’t think I know what I’m doing any more, though.” Nagato’s eyes were fixed on her as if the two of them were alone.

She smiled and leaned down to kiss his forehead. “That’s all right. Rest and think until you do. I carry on Yahiko’s spirit too; I’ll do the planning for this one.”

Nagato’s smile was soft and trusting, and Kakashi felt a bit like an intruder just seeing it. “All right.”

Jiraiya nodded quietly and stood. “Will the villages trust me to see these two back to their own land, then?” he asked, looking around at the gathered representatives.

“Be good for Hanzou to have something at home to worry about,” Souta grunted, and, despite an admonishing look at his second in command, Haruto nodded agreement.

Yuzuki gestured to her brother, who flicked his hands through five seals, separating Nagato’s hands as well though the Wood cuffs remained. “Hidden Valley agrees.”

“However it comes out, it seems like a just solution,” Tomita said.

“Nagato seems little more danger than Hanzou already was,” Kitsuchi allowed dryly, hands on his hips.

“Our brother will find this acceptable, I believe,” Temari agreed quietly.

Darui was silent for a long moment, staring down at his crossed arms. “I doubt the Raikage will be very happy with it,” he said at last. “But as the other villages all seem to agree I’m going to go ahead and say do it.” A corner of his mouth quirked up. “A-sama will yell no matter what; when he calms down he’ll probably talk himself around to the idea.”

Jiraiya smiled and Kakashi could see the tension easing out of his arms and face. “Good. Once Tsunade gets here, then, I’ll take these two home.”

Kakashi winced at the thought of the Hokage being stressed over what her student had been doing to himself and not having her old teammate there to take out her temper on. “You just want to be out of range while she shouts and pounds on people,” he muttered.

“With age comes wisdom, Kakashi-kun,” Jiraiya told him sententiously, not denying a thing, Kakashi couldn’t help noticing.

Konan and Nagato broke into stifled laughter against each other’s shoulders, and Kakashi gave his half-formed argument up for lost, watching the gentle look Jiraiya bent on his long-ago students. His mere bodily integrity was no match for that kind of expression. He’d just have to stand Tsunade’s ire as best he could and hope something distracted her.

The command team was just starting to turn away, preparing to leave again, when the door to the room slammed open.

“Commander!” Omoi leaned in the doorway, panting and a little wild-eyed. “Jiraiya-san! One of the Leaf-nin just tried to kill Naruto!”

A/N: So, Minato supposedly used the Shiki Fuujin to seal Kyuubi’s yin chakra; and yet we still see his spirit running around merrily, apparently quite at liberty. Yet another continuity fail, which leaving bits of chakra behind does not explain terribly well. Also, what kind of bastard severs half of a (relatively) innocent creature’s soul and condemns it to torment as it’s soul rots? *shudders* No, that technique just doesn’t fit here. So I made up a new one that does fit the actual results we’re shown.