Konoha is burning. The wind carries ash into the Hokage's office, where the only living shinobi to have carried that title are conversing in voices scraped hoarse by hours of shouting over the chaos of battle. Yondaime is performing a final ritual check of his gear, but his words are a catalog of loose ends.
"—The envoy from Suna is still waiting for a response to the Kazekage's last letter, let's hope the damned idiot has managed to stay out of harm's way. Quite a few chuunin are ready to be elevated to jounin; the council has the names and notes. And Jiraiya-sensei can fill you in on the latest intelligence from Iwagakure; they'll need to be watched for—"
None of it matters, Sandaime thinks, though he listens attentively and nods when the younger man seems to expect it. Everything's different now that the kyuubi's tails are breaking and remaking their old world. Even if Konoha is standing tomorrow, it won't be the village that it was yesterday. Too much has already been lost, and Sandaime knows the most painful blow is still to come.
The roar of crumbling masonry fills the air. Neither man needs to turn to the window to know the demon has demolished out another stretch of Konoha's walls. Sandaime watches his successor's face change and knows its expression must mirror his own. He stoops, retrieves Yondaime's hat from where it's fallen on the floor, and tucks it under his arm, saying, "I know, I know. There's no time. Go. I will see to the rest."
Yondaime nods, then surprises Sandaime by bowing formally before him. Sandaime can't remember the last time the two of them bothered with such ceremony. "I apologize for cutting short your retirement, Sandaime-sama. Farewell." Before Sandaime can answer, the air flickers, and Yondaime is gone.
Sandaime sets Yondaime's hat on the desk, which is covered with all the scrolls and texts that the two men pulled from the archives in their frantic attempt to find some answer to the demon. When he sees the one in which they've placed their hopes, he bows his head in grief.
"And I am sorry, friend," Sandaime says to the empty office, "to have chosen you for this death."
When the third genin team assigned to him by the village council actually manages to pass Sarutobi-sensei's bell test, Jiraiya is astonished. For a long while he stares up at the clouds, uninterested in putting forth the effort to stand. He's not sure whether he ought to be mourning the end of his freedom or simply laughing at the brats' cheek. He's still pondering his options when the blond one offers him a hand up.
He ignores it. Instead he struggles to his feet with a grumpy noise or two and brushes the dust off his clothes with more dignity than he actually feels. (But he's used to being embarrassed after all his years of working with Tsunade and Orochimaru.) When he's done, he stares down at the blond and says, "You idiot. You did most of the work but didn't get a bell. Won't you regret that when you're sitting at a desk at the academy next year?"
The boy shrugs.
"Shinobi who make choices like that on real missions generally end up dead," Jiraiya adds.
The boy's voice is steady. "Not if they have teammates who believe in the same things."
Jiraiya decides to give up the charade. "Weren't you even a bit worried about being sent back?"
"A little," the boy says. "That's why I volunteered to be the one who didn't get a bell. But I figured I was safe once you called me an idiot." His face breaks into a smile. A foolish smile, Jiraiya thinks. "Was I right?"
"Brat. I should send you back for being so stupid." A pause. "I won't, of course."
These are the lessons Yondaime learns from Jiraiya: how to train, how to fight, how to kill, how to grieve, how to summon frogs, how to drink with them, how to enjoy a good book, how to flirt, how to run like hell, how to dissemble, how to hold on, how to let go, how to be a legend, how to be a teacher, how to be a man.
Above all, Jiraiya teaches Yondaime how to survive.
Yondaime figures out how to die on his own.
Many years pass before the future Yondaime ever dreams about becoming Hokage.
It's not because he lacks ambition or heart; he has both in abundance. He simply can't conceive of anyone other than Sandaime in that robe and hat. The shinobi of Yondaime's generation have never known Konoha under another leader. They can't conceive of a fourth face on the mountain; to them, Sandaime might as well be the mountain. The old man seems to be eternal.
Jiraiya remembers the day that Nidaime fell and the chaos that followed, and he tries to explain to his genin team that even legends can't escape death. They don't believe him. They can imagine their own deaths more easily than they can imagine Sandaime's.
He is horrified when two of them prove themselves right by getting themselves killed.
The third blames himself. Which is ridiculous, and Jiraiya doesn't hesitate to say as much. "No one could have reached them in time. Not you, not me, not the fastest shinobi in ANBU. You can't protect everyone, brat."
"I can try." The boy's voice rises into a shout. "I'll find a way."
"You tell me when you've found a way to be three places at once," Jiraiya snaps. "They were shinobi. They accepted these risks when they chose this life."
The boy glowers. "It won't happen again. Not to my teammates. Not on my watch."
Jiraiya's wept for the dead; now he wants to weep for the living. "Kid, it always happens again."
The ANBU team speeds through the shadows of the forest, moving faster than most shinobi can see. For two days they've been troubled by strange reports of monsters and calamity; now there's fire on the mountains and smoke reaching to the clouds. Konoha is under attack. The only question is by whom.
By sunrise their last soldier pills are wearing off; they struggle against their exhaustion until the captain finally—reluctantly—orders a break. Some gulp down water; others simply sprawl on the uneven ground and attempt to catch their breath. One speaks for all of them when she looks up at the sun and mutters, "Let us be in time."
All of them know what it's like to be too late.
It's October, and the forests south of Konoha are at their most beautiful. The youngest member of the team watches the leaves drift to the ground in lazy spirals of scarlet and gold. It was autumn the first time he saw his sensei appear before him in a twister of leaves; the leaves looked like fire as they scattered around the Yellow Flash's sandaled feet.
He swallows a last mouthful of water, returns his ANBU mask to its place, then stands, signaling his readiness to move on. He knows what Yondaime might do if Konoha is in danger.
They're probably too far from home to make a difference. But if there's any chance they're not, Kakashi intends to find it.
Kakashi benefits little from his brief tenure at the academy; he has already learned all its lessons at his father's knee. By the time Kakashi's assigned to a jounin sensei, he's recently added his childish scrawl to his clan's summoning contract. It doesn't matter that he's only managed to call forth mewling puppies. He's promised himself that will change soon.
"He knows more than they wanted to teach him," Kakashi's father says to the Yellow Flash on the day sensei and student are introduced.
The younger jounin's smile never wavers. "I would be surprised if that wasn't the case, Hatake-san."
Nevertheless, it's the Yellow Flash, not Sakumo, who teaches Kakashi how to kill.
It's only rabbits at the beginning, during that week of survival training. On the first night, they snare a rabbit for their dinner; his sensei shows him how to strike the killing blow in the most merciful and efficient manner. Kakashi watches intently.
The next night he does it himself.
"Kakashi-kun?" He looks up from the dead rabbit to find his sensei blinking at him. The Yellow Flash's expression is as pleasant as ever, but his eyes are fixed on Kakashi's bloodied kunai. Kakashi looks down at his weapon, then back up at his sensei.
"I only asked you to check the trap."
Kakashi immediately bristles. "It wasn't hard."
His sensei stoops and picks up the carcass. "It shouldn't be hard, not for a shinobi. But don't ever let it become easy."
These are the lessons that Kakashi doesn't learn from Yondaime: how to relax, how to unwind, how to show his true face to the world, how to move on, how to be more than a weapon, how to be less than a genius, how to be merely a boy.
Worst of all, Kakashi never grasps Yondaime's lessons on how to bear the burden of survival.
But Kakashi was a genius long before he gained Obito's Sharingan, long before he was ever Yondaime's student. When Yondaime is hurrying toward his death, he still believes that one day Kakashi will finally understand everything that matters.
Maybe he'll do it by himself. Or maybe someone unexpected will help him.
Kakashi reaches the cenotaph at dawn on the morning after Obito's funeral. He's startled to discover that someone has gotten there before him, but his surprise melts away when the weak light reveals his sensei's familiar shock of yellow hair. They don't acknowledge each other as they stare down at the inscribed stone; after a while, the Yellow Flash departs with his usual silent grace, leaving Kakashi alone with the dead.
By the fifth morning, Kakashi has come to expect his sensei at the memorial, and once again, he's not disappointed. After the other shinobi leaves, Kakashi says to the cenotaph, "You would expect him to say something, wouldn't you, Obito? But he doesn't even look at me when I walk up beside him."
The stone remains stubbornly mute.
On the twelfth morning, the Yellow Flash nods in greeting when Kakashi joins him. Eventually the older man asks, "How long do you plan to come?"
"How long have you been coming?"
"As long as my friends' names have been on the stone." A pause. "A long time."
Kakashi wants to know what all those visits have taught his sensei, because his own certainly haven't led him to any epiphanies. But that's the sort of question he's been trained not to ask; that's the sort of answer ninja aren't supposed to need. He keeps his mouth shut behind his mask.
"I don't come for the dead, Kakashi-kun," the Yellow Flash says as he turns to walk away. "I come for the living."
Kakashi never meets his sensei at the cenotaph again.
The medics attending to the dying woman are too absorbed by their work to notice Yondaime's arrival. The nurses are not; the one holding his newborn son nearly drops the wailing child when the Hokage suddenly appears and shoulders his way to the bed.
The medic-nins exchange grave looks when they become aware of the new arrival. "We were told you had left for the front, Hokage-sama, and thought—"
He cuts off their explanations with a gesture as he stares down at his wife's terribly still form.
"She won't regain consciousness," the lead medic says. "Her injuries—the poison chakra of the demon—it was all we could do to save the child."
Yondaime closes his eyes for a long moment, then bends and presses his lips to his wife's damp brow. At a look from the medic, the nurse brings him the child; only the nurse sees how the Hokage stills when he notices the whisker lines marking his son's plump cheeks. He traces one with a gentle finger.
Then Yondaime raises his eyes and looks at the assembled staff. "Thank you for all you've done," he says, holding the child a little closer to his chest. His hands flash through a series of seals, and he's gone.
For a long moment, the hospital staff can only gape at the empty space where he stood.
Then the lead medic turns her attention to the grim scene outside the window. The kyuubi's fires are once again coming closer. "Medics, assemble your field teams," she says to her staff after a moment. "Nurses, help prepare the wards for more casualties. I'm afraid we will all have much more work to do today."
When Jiraiya climbs through the window of the Hokage's office, he finds Yondaime brooding over a framed photo of his students. "Kid, I'm back."
"What news from Iwagakure?"
"Nothing good. You'll see the report tomorrow." Jiraiya sits down heavily an empty chair; how he feels his age on days like this. "I heard about Rin. I am sorry."
"Kakashi still doesn't know; he's been away. How do I tell him?" Yondaime sets the photo in its usual place on his desk. "How did you tell me?"
"If I recall correctly, I provoked you. We argued. And then we stormed off in opposite directions."
"That's right. You called me a brat."
"Well, you were one. Still are." Jiraiya produces two cups and a bottle of sake from his pack. He fills Yondaime's cup, then allows the younger man to return the courtesy. "For Rin-chan"
"And for all the others."
"It's an awful thing," Jiraiya says after a while. "Outliving your students, that is. So you keep yourself alive, brat."
Yondaime doesn't answer.
Before Konoha's ruined walls, its finest play a delaying game.
Jiraiya checks the seal pasted to his weapon pack as he listens to the latest reports from the scouts; it's still intact, miraculously unharmed despite the chaos. "It's coming back," says the most recently returned chuunin. A medic tends to the burns on her arms as she speaks. "The fifth ANBU team has led it on a merry chase, but two of them are down. And a third is already injured."
The report confirms Jiraiya's worst fears: the kyuubi is losing interest in the ANBU teams' diversionary feints more quickly each time around. And it hasn't made their tactics any less costly: not a single member of those ANBU teams has returned alive.
Something keeps pulling the demon back toward the village. It's enough to make Jiraiya wonder if the attack on Konoha is something more than an unlucky twist of fate.
"We have to hold on until Yondaime gets here," Jiraiya says, though the words are beginning to sound old even to his own ears. "We have to—"
"I have come."
Jiraiya turns to find his student standing at his shoulder. What he sees transforms his relief into fury. "What are you thinking?"
"Sandaime-sama and I have found a way to seal the demon."
"Is the price your child's life?"
"No," says Yondaime. "Not his life."
Jiraiya's the only one who understands; when he looks at the other shinobi, he only sees blind, naïve faith in their leader. He opens his mouth to argue, but Yondaime cuts him off, saying, "Don't you see my hitae-ite?"
"Don't you see mine? I am also a Konoha shinobi. Tell me how to do the seal."
"I've already had this discussion with Sandaime-sama. This is a task for the Hokage. Not for his predecessor, not for his sensei."
"And not for a child," Jiraiya shoots back, even though he knows what his student's answer will be. He grabs Yondaime's arm, wanting to shake sense into him as he did when the Yellow Flash was still a boy. "Not for your son."
"You forget that all of Konoha is my precious family."
Jiraiya was present on the day his apprentice first caught Sandaime's eye. Team Yellow Flash had just returned from a routine mission, and during his report, the kid said something—Jiraiya can never recall what it was—that startled Sandaime so much that he nearly dropped his pipe. Jiraiya had stood there, watching, and understood that Sandaime had finally found someone who might truly inherit his will.
This ending was written on that day. Jiraiya had just hoped that he would not live to witness it.
"Time is short, sensei. I must go." His words are a warning and a request.
Jiraiya reluctantly releases Yondaime's sleeve. "At least tell me what I can do."
Yondaime looks down at the bundle wriggling in his arms. "When this is over, bring him home."
When the news reaches the Sarutobi household, Sandaime puts aside the quiet pleasures of his retirement and makes his way to the Hokage's office to offer his best wishes to his successor.
The conversation does not go entirely as he expected.
"Was it hard? The first time you had to send Asuma on a real mission, was it hard?"
"It wasn't the first time that I'd sent someone I loved out to face death. It won't be your first time either, when that day comes." He refrains from mentioning Rin and Obito, though their ghosts are in the room. Their ghosts are always in the room.
"That's not an answer."
"I wish I could say it was the hardest thing that I have ever done," Sandaime says in the end. "That would be a lie—I am not that kind of a parent. But it wasn't easy. And it never got easier."
These are the lessons Naruto should have learned from Yondaime: how to crawl, how to stand, how to walk, how to run, how to speak, how to shout, how to play, how to pull pranks, how to venture out into the wide world, how to come back home at the end of the day.
And one day, if Naruto had chosen it, Yondaime would have taught him how to be a Konoha shinobi.
His son will grow up an orphan, Yondaime knows, but Naruto won't have to figure out all these lessons by himself.
When Yondaime's dying, he trusts Konoha to make sure that's true.