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春 三

16, December, 1001

If it’s possible for someone to die of embarrassment, Moegi is pretty sure she’s on death’s door right now.

In reality she’s on a hospital examination table waiting for the medics to look at her swollen knee, which has turned a lovely shade of bile yellow, while Udon frets over her on her left and Ebisu scolds her on her right. The only member of her team not crowding her and talking directly into her ear is Konohamaru. And that’s because he’s too busy laughing at her.

"Seriously?! You tripped?! You tripped! That’s so dumb," he cackles, holding his belly as his whole body shakes, "How do you trip when jumping through trees?!"

"Hey, come on, it’s not funny. Moegi’s really hurt," Udon tries to protest, but Konohamaru literally can’t hear him over his own laughter.

Ebisu’s voice comes in louder and sharper as he adjusts his glasses and snaps, "I have taught you better than this, Konohamaru! When a teammate is injured you show concern, even if they’re the ones to blame for their injury!"

Konohamaru rolls his eyes; "She’ll be fine! It’s just a sprain, right? I sprain things all the time and I’m always fine like a day later!"

Udon frowns at the mess that is Moegi’s knee and mutters, "It doesn’t look like a sprain… Are you sure that’s what it is, Moegi?"

Moegi’s cheeks flush as she hastily lies, "Yeah, I didn’t fall from that high up, I’m fine. I’ll be fine."

"See? She said it herself," Konohamaru cuts back in, "And seriously, you won all the time at Ninja Tag, how did you trip–?"

Ebisu’s jaw clenches and a vein stands out on his neck; "Konohamaru I swear on–"

The door slams open with a loud snap, drawing all eyes away from Moegi and over to the doorway as two figures come through it.

A handsome young man with dark hair comes striding into the room, the Hyūga genin that saw them in a few steps behind him, and snaps, "Alright, anyone who isn't injured or sick get out of my way."

A ripple of shock passes over the team, and everyone immediately closes ranks around Moegi.

Konohamaru scowls at the handsome young man, getting directly in his way; "Hey, I know you, you’re Sasuke Uchiha! Where do you get off talking to us like that?! No wonder Naruto was always trying to kick your ass, you’re a real d–!"

Sasuke shuts his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose; "Taiyō, you have five seconds to get this kid out of my way before I throw him through a wall."

The Hyūga boy holding Moegi’s chart shoves himself between Konohamaru and Sasuke, pasting on a grin; "Hey, look, listen, you are absolutely right about Sasuke being a dick right now. But I promise you he’s not always a dick, and he’s also really good at medical ninjutsu. Just let him work, alright? Please?"

Konohamaru’s face screws up into a glare that could start a forest fire; "… Fine."

He lets himself be gently pushed to the side and Sasuke storms the rest of the way over to the examination table. Udon and Ebisu reluctantly scoot back, but keep their eyes locked on Sasuke. Moegi lets her face fall into her hands as it heats up. Of course she got Naruto’s asshole teammate as her medic. As if her team dressing her down for her stupid injury wasn’t enough now he’s going to rake her across the coals for it. She peeks through her fingers just in time to see him taking off his heavy canvas jacket and tying it around his waist.

Moegi lets her eyes roam along his toned arms and chest. Why do all the hot boys in this village have to be jerks?

The moment he takes a look at her knee, something in his expression softens; "… Okay, I can see why you called me here."

Taiyō comes around to the other side of the table and activates his Byakugan with a smirk; "Am I off the hook for interrupting your research now?"

Sasuke’s palms flare to life with bright blue-green chakra and he replies, "We’ll see, Cricket, we’ll see. Keep an eye on her heart and your fingers on her pulse."

Taiyō chokes down some foul word, but takes Moegi’s wrist in his hands and turns his eyes to her chest. She can’t suppress the shudder that rolls through her at the thought of him looking at her organs. Sasuke’s eyes snap from steel gray to bright red, three tomoe materializing around his pupil. He picks her knee up from below with his left hand and uses the right to channel healing chakra into her. All of Udon’s suspicion and ire goes flying out the window and he creeps in to get a closer look at Sasuke working. Konohamaru chews on his lip and shrinks in on himself– It’s the look he always gets when he’s impressed, but absolutely does not want to be.

Moegi’s knee feels like it’s been submerged in a tropical sea, warm and weightless. She can feel the chakra pulsing in slow waves, the tomoe of Sasuke’s Sharingan spinning in time with it. Beyond that her knee is pleasantly numb. Every few moments her heart rate starts to climb, but Taiyō catches it just as she does and Sasuke pauses until it’s gone back down.

Evidently Udon’s seeing a pattern, as he asks, "You’re healing Moegi’s knee, right? Why is this jutsu affecting her heart?"

"Technically speaking, what I’m doing affects the whole body," Sasuke replies, the edge of annoyance long gone from his voice, "Mystical Palm Jutsu accelerates the body’s natural healing process. We need to use just the right amount of chakra to heal the specific injury we’re dealing with to avoid sending that process into overdrive, overloading the patient’s circulation and potentially throwing them into cardiac arrest. There’s even more risk of that when we’re dealing with a growing body that hasn’t acclimated to being healed that way. We usually do kids in multiple sessions if the injury isn’t life threatening."

Konohamaru pipes up from the wall he’s slouched against, "Are you gonna do that for Moegi?"

Sasuke’s hands go out and he looks over to Taiyō, who takes a long look through Moegi’s leg before answering, "Yes, but probably only one or two more, and only if it’s super necessary. You guys caught it at a relatively early stage, so Sasuke got her through the worst of it."

Sasuke sets Moegi’s leg back down, his eyes fading back to gray; "I’ll tell Tsunade to put your team on leave for the next four weeks. While you’re off you’re gonna want to keep that knee elevated and ice it for twenty minutes every few hours. I’ll send you home with a crutch, and after two weeks you’ll come back in so I can run you through a shorter course of Mystical Palm and fit you for a brace, which you should be out of in another two weeks. Taiyō, can you take her team out to the lobby and get them started on the paperwork?"

Taiyō nods and immediately starts herding her team; "Alright, alright, everybody out! She’ll be fine, now come on, scoot, scat, get–!"

The protests of her team and Taiyō’s urgings disappear as Taiyō closes the door behind them, leaving her alone in the room with Sasuke. For a moment, Sasuke doesn’t say anything, just walking around her and over to a cupboard to retrieve a crutch.

Just as she’s starting to wonder what the point of this is, Sasuke remarks, "So I know you lied to us."

Moegi’s heart leaps up into her throat; "W-what are y–?!"

Sasuke strolls back over and cuts her off in an even tone, "You said you sprained your knee on your way to meet your team this morning because you tripped while jumping through trees and your leg twisted when you landed. The knee I healed had been injured yesterday and had been walked on, trained on, and jumped on since then. The first piece of advice I’m gonna give you is not to try lying to a Hyūga, they can literally see right through you."

Sasuke stops at the side of the table and leans on the crutch like it’s a cane, arching a brow at her; "So? Wanna tell me the real story?"

Moegi gulps, shuts her eyes, and blurts out, "I was practicing on my own in the forest behind my house and I knew the branch I was gonna land on looked kinda weak but I thought it was fine because it was holding so much snow but it wasn’t and it broke and I fell twelve meters and landed on my feet like an idiot and I didn’t want anyone to know so I just… didn’t tell anyone…"

Sasuke stares at her for a few moments. Moegi tries to pick apart his expression to see if he’s judging her, but it’s like trying to psychoanalyze a concrete wall.

His mouth tilts at one corner in a wry smile; "Consider yourself lucky– You didn’t have to fight on that knee."

Moegi’s brow furrows and Sasuke answers by, with a wince, bringing up his left leg and bracing it against the table; "During my first run at the Chunin Exams two years ago I fell from a tree, landed wrong, and fucked up my knee. I then got into two fights on it, where my opponents worked my knee until it was beyond normal medical ninjutsu’s help. I lived with a limp and chronic pain for three months until another fight left me with no choice but surgery or amputation. Surgery got rid of my limp, but I still need to wear a brace sometimes to manage the pain. Because I was stupid and proud at twelve I’m now a teenager with arthritis."

Moegi feels a chill lance up her spine, but Sasuke isn’t done, looking her in the eye as he says, "And even I’m lucky, because I actually got a choice of what to do with my leg. Imagine if I’d been on a mission, deep in the heart of enemy territory, without any other medics on my team. How many options do you think I’d have then?"

Moegi tucks her chin into her chest and murmurs, "I’m sorry…" She can feel her eyes starting to sting and her throat starting to ache.

Two fingers tap against the plate of her headband, gently pushing her head back up so she’s looking at Sasuke again. Her eyes go wide and her jaw drops, because Sasuke… Sasuke is smiling at her. In an instant his face has turned into something warm and kind, with a mirthful spark in his dark eyes.

"Don’t be. You’re still young, Moegi," he laughs, "Now’s the perfect time to make mistakes. That’s the only way you’re gonna learn. Like I told you, I only got where I am now by making a bunch of really stupid mistakes. My knee isn’t the worst of it– I used to practice medical ninjutsu on myself. I’d poke my arms with kunai, try to fix my knee, one time I even broke my own toe just so I’d have a broken bone to practice on."

A giggle bubbles out of Moegi’s chest as her cheeks flush red; "No way!"

Sasuke grins with a nod; "Way. It took weeks of that before I finally learned that I couldn’t just do everything by myself and needed to ask for help as soon as I needed it. That’s the hardest lesson any ninja can learn. Some never do."

Sasuke holds the crutch out for her to take; "So, in a sense, it’s a good thing you’re learning it early."

The crutch almost slips out of Moegi’s hands, on account of her sweaty palms, and she stammers, "Y-yeah, I– I-I promise, I promise, next time I’ll come here the minute I get hurt!"

Sasuke helps her down from the table and shoots her another one of those wry, lopsided smiles; "I’ll hold you to that."

If it’s possible for someone to die of embarrassment, Moegi is pretty sure she’s on death’s door right now. Because she can’t believe she’s now yet another girl who has a crush on Sasuke Uchiha.

27, January, 1002

hates going to No Man’s Land. Which, honestly, is probably why she keeps being sent here.

Slogging through ankle deep water, always on the lookout for alligators and leeches, is only the surface. Below it are the explosive tags, tripwires, land mines, all manner of traps and tricks left behind by her people (or maybe Sound, but who knows anymore?) that turn every mission into a deadly game of Roulette. Below that are her teammates, never the same ones twice, who hiss under their breath about having to guard the freak and slip poison into her food. And below even that are the terrified gasps and burning glares the people of this territory give her as her Team of the Week parades her through settlements to show off the power of Waterfall.

If Fū can take any solace in today’s mission, it’s that during Winter you’re a lot less likely to get bitten by an alligator.

She trudges along at the back of her squad, boring holes in their skulls with her eyes. This may be the worst team she’s been assigned yet. Dara, their scout, let her walk right into a pit trap while guiding the rest of the team around it. Minh is in charge of their provisions, so of course he made Fū beg for more rations after hers turned out to be poisoned, again. Makaio had seemed nice until Fū overheard her and Sukanda whispering behind her back, calling her 'Dung Beetle' and hoping something here would step on her.

Before Fū can drift off into pleasant daydreams of running away and never going back to Waterfall, Dara puts a hand up; "Stop."

Sukanda narrows her eyes and flips her long braid over one shoulder; "What now? At this rate we’re gonna be sixty by the time we get to that Sound outpost!"

Dara glares over his shoulder and hisses through his teeth, "Just shut up, I’m trying–"

Sukanda’s eyes go wide and she snaps back, "Don’t you tell me to shut up, you little–!"

Minh puts a broad hand on Sukanda’s shoulder; "The more we argue the more time we have to spend here, just do as he says."

Makaio slips on one of her fake smiles and flutters her eyelashes; "We all want to get this mission over with, Sukanda. Just be p–"

"If you don’t all shut up I will skin you alive," Dara snarls, warping the scar across his mouth, "Now shut. The fuck. Up."

Everyone falls into a tense silence. Fū shifts from foot to foot, the water sloshing with her, but Minh throws another glare at her and mouths 'Stand still'. She turns her attention to Dara instead, just in time to see his eyes go wide. They dart this way and that, his jaw clenches tight, and a bead of sweat rolls down his face.

Dara turns to the squad and whispers, "Where are all the birds?"

Fū’s breath catches in her throat. In that moment, she hears no sparrow songs, no dove calls, no hawk cries. The swamp is completely silent.

"W-what– What does that mean?" Fū stammers, trying to pick out a single bird in the branches of the thick canopy and finding none.

"It means something’s wrong, dumbass," Sukanda shoots back, "We’re not alone. What’s the protocol here? Fan out? Counterambush? What?"

Makaio runs her nails along the shaved sides of her head; "We don’t even know what we’re up against yet. It could be an enemy unit, it could be we’re in the territory of one of the giant gators, it could be a dozen different things."

Minh’s beady eyes coast along the squad before finally settling on Fū; "Fū, you take point with Dara. Get a head start and stay ten yards ahead of us. We’ll go slowly and fan out to get a clearer view of the terrain, see if we can’t ferret these people out."

Fū finds herself scowling; "Why am I taking point?"

Minh doesn’t take the bait; "I’m Squad Leader, so you do as I say. Now go take point."

Fū bites her tongue. She adjusts her pack and shoves her way forward through the muck. She and Dara creep ahead, crouched low and moving so slowly the water barely ripples. Fū gnaws the inside of her cheek. She’s not made for slow and still and quiet. Is that another reason they keep sending her out to No Man’s Land, so one day she’ll fuck up a stealth mission and get herself killed? She wouldn’t put it past them.

Fū lets her eyes roam over the swamp; Dara is fifteen feet to her left, and she can’t see the rest of the squad anymore. She could run. She could slip behind a tree and wait until Dara had passed her and go West, or South, or even North to the ocean. She could hide in No Man’s Land forever. She could–

Dara puts a hand out and whispers, "Wait."

Fū stops and follows his gaze. The swamp ahead is thick with water plants, cattails and reeds obscuring the view down to the bottom of the water. They spread out in all directions as the cypress trees grow tall and thick, creating a claustrophobic terrain with no shortage of hiding places.

Dara shoots her a glare and snaps, "You’re useless with scouting. Stay here, I’ll look for traps."

Fū doesn’t have to be told twice. She glares at Dara’s back as he wades into the reeds, sending pulses of chakra through the water. The reeds wobble out of his way as he pushes through. It’s only a moment too late that Fū notices the few reeds that lean towards him.

There’s a loud hiss as several reeds stretch out and wrap around Dara’s arms and legs. They pull him down into the bed of water plants. The image of cattails and lily pads dissolves in the water, replaced in an instant by a roiling bed of snakes. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of snakes. They coil and twist around each other and quickly overwhelm Dara, winding around everything but his face. Fū yelps and Dara screams, high enough to shatter glass. A python as thick as Fū’s arm and twice as long coils around Dara’s neck and starts to squeeze down.

Dara thrashes one arm free and reaches for Fū; "Help! Help me! Stop gawking and fucking h–!"

Fū turns on her heel and sprints back the way she came. She splashes noisily through the swamp, but can still hear Dara’s screams get cut short by a sickening crack!

Out of the corner of her left ear Fū can hear the sound of thrashing in the water, harmonizing with Makaio’s voice as she yells frantically for "Someone, anyone, help me!"

Fū’s feet are moving toward the sound before she can remind herself that she doesn’t owe Makaio a thing. She wheels around a tree to find Makaio’s head barely sticking out of the swamp water and one arm flailing in sluggish arcs through the air. The rest of her body is submerged beneath the swamp muck and mud, sinking lower every second.

Her eyes lock on Fū’s and she starts babbling, "Fū I’m sorry I called you a dung beetle and looked the other way when Sukanda poisoned your food I’m sorry I’m sorry please pull me out please please please–!"

Fū knows she doesn’t mean it. But she races over and grabs her arm anyway. Fū tries to pull Makaio out, but this skinny teenage girl is somehow heavier than an elephant. Fū’s heels sink into the mud as she pulls and Makaio has to tilt her head back as far as it can go to keep her mouth from going below the water. Fū braces one foot against a cypress trunk and pulls with all her might. Her other heel slides out from under her and Fū goes tumbling backward, Makaio’s arm slipping out of her grip as she lands back first in the swampy water.

She scrambles to get back up, but it’s too late. With a strangled scream Makaio slips into the water. Her head goes under the mud. Her arm thrashes and grasps at nothing before it, too, disappears.

Fū stares at the spot where Makaio once was for a long moment before shoving herself up to her feet and crying out, "Minh! Minh, where are you?! Minh!"

She hears him on her far right call out, "Over here, Fū! I’ve found the enemy! Get in here and back me up!"

Fū channels chakra into her feet and leaps from tree trunk to tree trunk, bouncing between them to keep her feet out of the mud. She follows the sounds of splashing water, weapons clattering off trees, and Minh grunting in pain. Fū spills out into a small clearing in the swamp and comes stumbling to a stop, eyes wide in shock. Minh isn’t fighting a Sound ninja. Minh is currently throwing a bevy of kunai at a wild-eyed, blood-spattered Sukanda.

Sukanda runs through some hand signs and draws two thin streams of water up to her hands, shouting, "Fū, great timing! I’ve found the enemy, let’s take them out and regroup with the others!"

Fū’s jaw drops open and she stammers, "Sukanda– S-sukanda that’s not–!"

Sukanda’s already lashing out with her water whips. Minh ducks and rolls beneath them, running through a reel of hand signs before shoving his hands up to his forearms in the mud. Muddy ground surges up and around Sukanda, wrapping around her like a cocoon. Sukanda thrashes, but the mud hardens around her in an instant.

She snaps over at Fū, "Fuck, I can’t make hand signs, hurry up and break me out of this you fucking–!"

"That’s enough from you, Sound scum," Minh snarls, pulling a hand out of the swampy ground and slapping it against the mud cocoon. The mud around Sukanda’s head softens and surges in, filling her mouth and nose. Sukanda’s muffled screams only help her suck more mud into her lungs. Fū’s legs move before she can tell them not to and she’s racing over to the mud cocoon. She channels chakra into her fists and starts punching the hardened clay, cracking it, but not breaking it. Fū pulls back for another blow but is knocked away by Minh’s elbow crashing into her nose.

She goes rolling back through the water and manages to right herself just in time to see Minh spit a jet of pressurized water at her head. Fū ducks beneath it and strafes around the clearing, running just ahead of several more blasts of water and earth.

"Traitor," Minh snarls, "Stupid fucking traitor! Do you think Sound’s gonna treat you any better than we do?! You’re a monster! A relic of an old war everyone wants to forget!"

"Minh you’re under a genjutsu," Fū calls, leaping and rolling under a lancing blade of water, "That wasn’t a Sound operative, that was–!"

He snarls over her, "Screw you, you think I don’t know when you’re lying?! Just do everyone a favor and die already!"

Fū forms the tiger sign, slaps her palms together, and releases a spray of glittering scales from her mouth. They fill the air like fog and Minh grunts out a swear as the scales get in his eyes and they slam shut. Fū palms a kunai and closes the distance between them. She grits her teeth and thrusts the blade into his windpipe. Minh chokes on his own blood as he tries to scream. Fū uses her momentum to push him all the way down into the water, falling with him and landing with a knee on his stomach. She uses her other hand to shove his head beneath the water. He writhes and flails but Fū doesn’t let up, not until he’s gone completely still beneath her and the bubbles have stopped rising to the surface.

There’s a cracking sound from the corner of her ear. Her scales settle on the water’s surface and Fū turns towards the noise. It’s the sound of the mud cocoon falling off of Sukanda’s corpse in chunks, the body falling with them when there isn’t enough mud to keep it upright.

Fū’s blood runs cold as she stands and creeps backward, putting her back against a tree. She’s the only one left. Her whole squad was wiped out, and the enemy hasn’t even shown their face. She’s the jinchūriki, there’s no way she isn’t the target. Tremors wrack her body from head to toe. What are they going to do with her? She’s heard horror stories about Sound and seen enough of their work here to know at least half of them are true. At least in Waterfall she knows what she’s in for. In Sound…

"Hey. You."

Fū whirls towards the voice, picking out it’s source directly above her.

There is a girl perched on a branch. She's dressed all in black, with tinges of red on the edges of her yukata. She's exceedingly pale and exceedingly thin. Big green eyes peer down at Fū through raggedly-cut pink hair.

Fū’s fight or flight reflex shatters when the girl’s piercing green eyes meet hers. She freezes. Her heart is hammering against her ribcage and all she wants to do is run but her legs won’t move.

The pink-haired girl cocks her head to the side, looking almost like an owl; "What’s your name?"

Her voice comes out in an unsightly dribble; "F– F-fū…"

The pink-haired girl stares at her for a moment more before her body blows away on the wind, dispersing like mist. The only thing Fū can move are her eyes, and they dart around in wild zig-zags looking for the girl. There’s no trace of her, no sound of shifting water or creaking branches, no shadows darting between the trees, nothing.

And then a hand closes around Fū’s shoulder.

Fū lets out a blood curdling scream and spins away from the hand. The pink-haired girl is melting out of the tree Fū had been cowering against, everything below her waist submerged in the bark. Her hair is hanging stringy and greasy in front of her face, her eyes peeking out through the curtain of pink. Fū starts to form hand signs, but loses her nerve as snakes come oozing out of the tree, slithering across the ground towards Fū. They slalom between her legs and circle around her feet, thread themselves through the branches and hang over her. Their hissing and rattling all starts to harmonize into one overpowering rasp.

The pink-haired girl’s voice cuts through it with scalpel precision; "Fly back home to Waterfall, Fū. No matter what you do, don’t look back until you’re across the border. When you’ve made it all the way back to the village, when they ask you what happened here, tell them that your team was eaten by a monster. And tell them the monster sent you back with a message."

Fū’s croaks out a shaky, "W-what’s the message?"

The girl’s mouth twists into a bizarre parody of a smile; "That things are going to change very soon in the Land of Sound."

"W-what does that–?!"

All Fū does is blink.

When her eyes open after a heartbeat of darkness, she is alone in No Man’s Land. No snakes, no girl. Only swamp water and silence.

Fū takes a deep breath and sprints for home. She doesn’t look back, not even sparing a single glance over her shoulder to see if the pink-haired girl is still watching. She flies East as fast as her legs can carry her to tell her village of the monster lurking in No Man’s Land, never knowing that she turned back right before a different pair of monsters could spirit her away to eat her alive.

20, February, 1002

Jiraiya has learned in the last two years that caring for Naruto is a lot like caring for an exotic hothouse flower. When all his very specific needs are being met he’s a revelation to behold, but when even one of them isn’t he starts wilting and withering and falls into a death spiral.

Well, "death spiral" might be pushing it. More like "depression spiral". But but he certainly wilts and withers with the best of them.

The kid is supposed to be practicing a bit of rudimentary fuinjutsu. He’s instead listlessly drawing random lines on the page and kicking his bare feet back and forth in one of Mount Myōboku’s empty tadpole ponds. Jiraiya can’t help wincing as he watches from afar. He can deal with Naruto being a bratty, testy, willful, pain-in-his-ass little shit. What he can’t deal with is… this.

To an extent, he can’t blame the kid. He remembers being his age during his own training, he’d gotten pretty sick of spending all his time around a bunch of frogs pretty quick. But to his own credit, Jiraiya had tried to mitigate that. Naruto was by no means confined to the mountain. They left all the time, made the circuit of the surrounding lands, saw all kinds of new things and new people– Because that, by far, was the need Naruto needed met most urgently. If he wasn’t making new friends or visiting old ones on a constant, rapid rotation the kid would get squirrelly. And a squirrelly Naruto was a dangerous Naruto.

Jiraiya grimaces as he remembers what Naruto did to the Great Lord Elder Gamamaru’s throne. They probably won’t ever be able to wash the stains all the way out.

But squirrelly and stir crazy are still things Jiraiya knows how to deal with. This… This isn’t that.

These spells were few and far between when Mount Myōboku and the world outside the Leaf Village were new and exciting, when the threat of the Akatsuki was still distant, when Sakura… Well, Jiraiya’s not sure if Naruto’s feelings about Sakura have gotten any less muddy and complicated, so maybe that’s not part of it. Regardless, Naruto had spent the vast majority of their time away in relatively good spirits. Now, it feels like all he does is sulk. Sulk. Jiraiya hadn’t thought the kid physically capable of sulking, but he supposes every teenager has it in them.

It’s an easily solved riddle. Naruto’s playing the part of the prisoner, so desperate for the day of his release that he can’t think of anything else until it comes. And they’re due to start back toward the Leaf Village at the end of the month.

There’s nothing Jiraiya can do to meet this need but put them both back on the path to home.

Home. Jiraiya… It’s not something he’s proud of, but he hasn’t thought of the Leaf Village as home in decades. He feels for it the sort of obligation he imagines someone feels to an ex-wife you divorced on amicable enough terms. He cares about it, he might even say he loves it, but he can never stay with it for long. Any time he does it just brings all the bad memories bubbling to the surface and reminds him why he left it in the first place. Naruto, it seems, is the opposite. Despite how much it hates him, he just can’t let the damn place go. He misses a handful of people so he longs for the whole village.

There’s only one person in the Leaf Village Jiraiya actually wants to talk to. There’s a lot more people he has to talk to.

There’s a part of Jiraiya that wants to keep Naruto here forever. He’ll be safe here, safer than the village would ever let him be. The Akatsuki will never find this place, and neither will anyone else who’d want to get their hands on him. Here, he’ll never take up the cursed role of Hokage and die as tragically as Sarutobi did, as Minato did, as Hashirama did, as Tsunade might. Here, Jiraiya will have all the time in the world to work up to telling him about Minato and Kushina. Here, life can move slowly, peacefully.

But Naruto is an exotic hothouse flower. And that means that while he can grow in a greenhouse like Mount Myōboku, he won’t thrive anywhere but under the wild sunshine.

Jiraiya swallows a sigh and ambles over to Naruto.

"You know what, go ahead and stop for the day," Jiraiya remarks, putting a hand on his hip as he stops just behind Naruto, "You should get a head start on packing."

Naruto cranes his neck to look directly up at Jiraiya, a brow arched; "We’re going somewhere?"

Jiraiya frowns down at him in mock exasperation; "Of course we are! We’re heading back to the Leaf Village in the morning. Now go on, g–"

Naruto’s scrambled to his feet so quickly he almost spilled the bottle of sealing ink; "What?! But I– I thought we were leaving at the end of the month, why–?! Are you serious? You’re not just messing with me, are you Pervy Sage?!"

Jiraiya can’t help a smirk; "Come on now, would I really joke about this?"

Naruto just frowns at him.

Jiraiya rolls his eyes; "Alright, fine, maybe I would. But I’m not. Shinobi’s honor. We’re leaving tomorrow, that’s the truth."

Naruto’s mouth is twitching up rebelliously at the corners; "But I mean– Are you sure? I’ve still got training to do, right? And the Akatsuki are still out there, I mean– You’re sure it’s a good idea to get going early?"

Jiraiya shoots him a lopsided grin; "Sure I’m sure. In the grand scheme a few weeks won’t make much difference. Now’s as good a time as then to get going."

Naruto’s grin spreads all the way across his face and it’s like someone’s shining a spotlight directly into Jiraiya’s eyes; "Then what are we waiting for?!"

The kid almost bowls him over as he goes sprinting off towards his quarters. Jiraiya’s barely blinked before he’s back, shoving things in his backpack as he jogs down towards the gate to the mountain pass leading to the sanctuary.

Jiraiya lopes after him, squawking, "Hey, slow your roll, kid! I said we’re leaving tomorrow, not right now!"

He can hear the grin in Naruto’s voice as he replies, "You said it yourself, if a few weeks won’t make a difference in the grand scheme then a day will make even less difference!"

Naruto looks over his shoulder and fixes Jiraiya with a sunny grin as he crows, "Come on, Pervy Sage! If we get going now we'll be back in no time, believe it!"

Jiraiya pauses for a moment. But he can’t fight the fond smile that spreads across his face. See, this is why Minato and Kushina should’ve chosen a different godfather– He just can’t say no to this kid.

"Fine, then lead the way."