Don't ever, Tsunade announces the evening before she meets Orochimaru, say you know what this is like, Jiraiya. Just don't.
The bar smells like frying squid. One sake jar is down on its side, rolled away like a hollow victim of a brigand attack. Looking at it, all Jiraiya wants to reply is no, no, this is why his women are all on paper and whenever the book is finished he can pick it up again, crack open the cover and find everything restarted. Restored. His women are in novel-format so that he never has to feel the pain of losing the ones he loves, that's how the theory goes. Isn't that right?
Tsunade shoves her cup towards him in a bull's insistency and Jiraiya reaches for a fresh sake jar, swallowing back his sarcasm.
Ever since that fateful year where all three had reached the Chuunin finals, but only Orochimaru had been chosen to move forward -- that's when Jiraiya started writing stories. The next year had seen him and Tsunade paired up with a third genin who was stuck behind when his team had similarly abandoned him, a boy as foreign and secretly unwanted as an artificial limb.
Tsunade and Jiraiya both graduated the next time through, hurrying through the trick test answers and toxic forest. The act brought no relief. Jiraiya had already been collecting novels by then, disqualified from his task of carrying the scrolls because he kept getting them mixed up with his scrap paper. The pages were covered with disjointed notes, endless cycles of couples who had lasted through war and fate and other people in order to achieve happy endings.
Years later, the two of them sit down at a table together again. Jiraiya's pockets are stuffed with ramen-bar napkins that have chapter numbers scribbled hastily on the corners. Tsunade's breath is already perfumed like sea-salt from all the alcohol. She asks him for another refill.
Of course I don't know what it's like, he wants to announce, wants to hurt Tsunade so maybe she won't advance ahead too in playing catch-me-catch-up with Orochimaru. No one I love has ever left me.
Eventually Jiraiya realizes that his mouth has grown weak from trying to hold back a bitter lie, wavy as the edge of an improperly formed sake jug, and he drinks more to hide it.
He tries to tell her not to go. She turns her face away and scowls, so instead he speaks to her about the profits of his latest book, the one where the hero manages to break the curse upon his best friend right before the house burns down.
Copy Ninja is an appropriate label for Hatake. Kakashi knows the risks of trying things that are new, outside the boundaries of what he's been shown to do and has eventually grown to fit. He has learned Konoha's mottos like a tree staked out in sapling-knots. In a way, Kakashi has never stopped imitating others, even when he is old enough that people expect greater originality. Legacies. Training.
He has his own technique in spite of this. It kills, and kills well. Kakashi is very good at his job because it is, by now, the entire reason that he is still alive.
Konoha thinks he's never passed any genin before because he believes no one to be worthy of his lessons. Kakashi knows better. There is no example other than Orochimaru to explain what genius does; for early graduates of any caliber, there are few comparisons. Between the Sannin and the Uchiha, Kakashi is in the dark about his own native tongue.
He can't communicate in it, so he reads instead.
When he picks his literature, Kakashi goes for the best-sellers.
"This is a remarkable insanity," the teenager whispers, as sounds of battle tear through the chaos of the arena. Where his band of protectors waits is untouched. The circle of Sound clusters in a loose ring around the teenager; he thinks about turning his clay-fired face to the sky, pulling the hood off and running his hands through his hair while murder explodes like wildfire pox through the Hidden Village.
The noise is white rain. It bathes him, and he could laugh in it.
Everyone who dies in Konoha today -- no matter what their clan -- is dying to serve futility. Sand attacks to regain their lost glory; Leaf defends because they have no other choice. Sound thinks it can crush them both. No one will win. The fight is desperation, disguised as conviction. There's no point.
The world trickles muffled through the tiny knot of guards that form a living barrier between the teenager and the rest of Leaf. They can't keep him safe, not where it counts -- but they don't need to know that.
"Remarkable," he says again. Then, "Madness."
The man beside him spares a glance, uneasy. "I don't understand, sir."
A smile ignites behind the Anbu mask. Kabuto breathes in, and sees the flash of a green bodysuit nearby, accompanied by snow hair and crimson eye and the promise of death.
"Isn't that the same as always?"
When he looks at the world coated red with the Sharingan, sometimes Itachi thinks he's touching a universe of blood. He is fascinated by it. Itachi stares into the mirrors of all the hotel rooms they visit, he and Kisame, and though the shark-man will joke about vanity, Itachi doesn't plan to be offended.
Not worth the effort.
Confronted by his reflection, Itachi remembers the old superstitions of the mitsu-tomoe mark. His mother had drawn the pinwheel for him once when she spoke of the mangekyou, claiming archaic concepts for the spiral of the kaleidoscope, deities for each fanblade. Amaterasu. Tsukiyomi. Susano-o. Sun, moon and thunder sky.
She had explained more, her story turning vague and the myths changing to Heaven, Earth and Man. Then she had spoken of dinner instead, and if the laundry was clean; but of one thing, Itachi is sure.
The Uchihas had eyes that span the heavens. They were meant to see beyond the clouds.
Itachi read the scrolls all summer when he was six, belly-flat on the porch with the story unrolled in a white tongue across the floor. He studied the quarrel between Susano-o and Amaterasu that plunged the world into darkness. He memorized the tale of the Food Kami which split Amaterasu and Tsukiyomi apart, thereby creating night and day.
Despite their many arguments, none of the three divine siblings killed each other.
At least, not that Itachi can remember.
Itachi tries to talk to Kisame once about the matter of Sasuke, without even consciously realizing it; offering forth a protean suggestion, a toddler of a thought. He starts off about the myth of the gods, but Kisame, thinking it to be a discussion on the weather, points out that it's drizzling again and how he isn't going to haul Itachi's corpse back from death by pneumonia.
Lee walks into a wall twice before Gai sends him home sick. Even then, Lee refuses, so Gai orders him to the infirmary in hopes that they'll find a medicine strong enough to knock the boy out. Punches only encourage Lee to work harder, which Gai has discovered to his occasional dismay.
Lee talks about flies as big as his thumb while they walk. His vision is not to be trusted. They march in a team through Konoha's streets; Gai will not let his student wobble there without supervision, and Neji refused to offer support in public. If Tenten went, then that would leave Neji alone with Gai, and the merest suggestion caused the Hyuuga's face to twitch.
The nurses give Lee a cot in the side room where they handle any student come in on pain of a stomachache, or flu, but who -- for one reason or another -- won't go home. Surprisingly, Neji volunteers to take Lee there. Neji, who announces that he knows the way like he would the back of his head, excusing both equally on the Byakugan.
The Hyuuga disappears down the hall with one hand steering Lee forward, propelling his green-suited teammate along to exile. Neji's steps are confident, but they usually are. Lee can be heard saying something about pull-ups before Neji expels one harsh word, too soft to carry.
Tenten spends the rest of the afternoon listening to Gai extol the virtues of proper rest and nutrition to reinforce the body's immune system. By the end of it, she has a head so full of vitamin trivia that she is left with a confused memory of iron bones and calcium muscles.
When Tenten peeks in on them later, Lee is shadowboxing with the air above his cot. Even in a fever he is trying to practice, swinging futile with his fingers clawing at the ceiling like he was swimming through bread dough. He never stops.
Neji has his face turned away, but for all Tenten knows, he could be watching too.
The room is stuffy and smells like disinfected cotton. Three windows dot the far wall and leak in thick sunlight, warming the greenhouse of germs. Neji looks like he has been sitting the entire time with his arms crossed, baked stiff underneath the heat into a porcelain figurine that will crack if it is touched.
She wonders what Neji would say if asked if he wants to come back yet.
One word. No.
Jiraiya wastes all of two days after Tsunade finally accepts the mantle of Hokage by thinking about what he's going to do once she's dead.
He saw the way her body is limned with age. Despite how she's hidden it, the jutsus that have saved her life are taking their price outside the bounds of mercy. She said yes anyway to the role of Kage, the job with the one-hundred percent mortality rate that has haunted her from grandfather to brother. In doing so, she becomes another link in the chain of Leaf. Also in doing so, she knows she will die that much sooner.
Jiraiya sees it coming. In secret, Tsunade is growing older faster than he is, while Orochimaru stays young forever. She hides it; she won't talk about it, not even when he insisted that she drop the illusionary jutsu. Fought with her over it. Said things, many of which he regrets. He couldn't think of anything better at the time.
He still can't.
Despite her secrecy, Tsunade has never been very good about concealing her moods from Jiraiya. He can read the way mortality hangs over her thoughts, how she touches sake less and less during daylight hours, but makes up for it at night. Her luck is legendary because she lacks it, and Jiraiya knows she dwells on that too, wonders if there's a curse over Konoha so long as she's the figurehead.
Jiraiya eats another ball of dango, mouthing the chewy rice treat off its skewer, and wonders when he became the normal one of them all.
Once he's back in Sound, Kabuto spends most of his free time bringing insects back to life. He revives everything from the moths that cluster in the underground tunnels to the ugly red-striped beetles that release noxious fumes in self-defense. This earns him the title of strange by everyone from the lowest genin-recruit to Orochimaru himself; he smiles each time he hears it uttered behind his back.
This diversion has become so frequent that Kabuto always carries his ink-jar with him, a slender glass vial adapted from a test tube. He packs a painter's brush originally intended for rice-paper scrolls. The characters of the restoration incantation crawl over the stones of the walkways where the medic stages these acts; Kabuto carefully writes the script all out of order, picking and choosing which letters he'll inscribe first.
Eventually the incantation circle is complete, but Kabuto first makes a pattern out of every symbol. He piles stacks of dried bugs in the middle. The branch-rattle of their bodies scraping together reminds him of forests, and also of his Konoha home.
There is one exception to this practice. The material for the circles comes from crushed ants.
Instead of paint, Kabuto uses a mortar-ground ink of black chitin that blends smoothly with oil, save for the occasional stray leg showing through. He grinds the bodies wholesale, feeling the crunch of exoskeletons collapsing. When he is done, he strains the mixture through a wire sieve and uses it to restimulate the dead.
Ants are the only creatures that Kabuto doesn't show mercy to, casually squashing them beneath a pencil whenever he sees one skittering by.
Kabuto can't really revive the dead. No one can, not even Tsunade. But the basics are taught to all medics, means of channeling chakra into lifeless flesh, causing muscles to relax, contract. Such lessons form the basis of the Dead Body Jutsu and have numerous cousin-applications in Orochimaru's summoning of ghosts.
The bugs all die as soon as Kabuto takes his attention off them. Chakra escapes; they fall, pit-pattering on the stones, discarded at the moment of forgetting. Dusty showers whisper daily in the village of Sound. Inevitably, Kabuto is left sitting in the middle of a ring of withered bodies, like an emperor ringed by sacrificial victims. Their rainbow colors are nothing like his own; grey eyes, white hair, empty smile.
No one in the Village realizes that Kabuto's hobby is not an act of ego, a game of playing god with easy metaphors. They do not ask directly, and he does not tell them.
For the duration of their second lives, Kabuto dedicates the insects to a single purpose only. He draws swarming brush strokes with their undead flight patterns, dots the ground with hiragana couplings. One word, over and over in the sunlit afternoons.
One word, for everything.
Kisame eats not one raw egg with his rice, but two. The excess laves each grain in sticky goop. Strings of daisy egg-yolk drip from Kisame's chopsticks, and remind Itachi of mucus.
The rains that forced the two Akatsuki to stop at an inn continue to batter the roads all through morning. Everything is muddy; muddy and freezing, the air wicking away all body temperature even from the protection of thick coats.
It's frigid in the dining section of the cheap country inn. Itachi is hunkered down on his bench. No one else has come near the pair, likely scared away by the Uchiha's glower. Even the waitress seems hesitant.
"Hey, are you going to eat that?"
Kisame's chopsticks hover over the untouched breakfast bowl. Spurred by the swordsman's unnatural hunger, they dip lower, brushing at pristine rice with their own yellow-coated tips. One thick drop of egg-yolk pools behind.
Itachi, who has always been sensitive to the cold since he forced the first Grand Fireball out of his body, spends the entire morning looking sour. He drinks cup after cup of hot tea. Kisame believes that the Uchiha is occupied with planning. In reality, Itachi doesn't have the energy to do more than think about how frigid it is. He wonders if he'll die like this, and then realizes he would be so lucky.
"If we go east," Kisame states around a toothy mouthful, "we'll finally be able to order crab."
Rerouting their itinerary to include the best Lightning Country restaurants is not among Itachi's priorities. He transfers his glare to his partner. "Isn't that cannibalism where you're concerned?"
They don't speak for an entire day after that.
Kakashi has been jittery all afternoon. He hasn't shown it. But after the discovery that Naruto and Sasuke had been briefly intent on murdering one another, Kakashi isn't sure if he can take his eyes off either of them for even a second. He's lost sleep on the matter. Part of him is convinced that glancing away will mean both their deaths for real this time, messy spatters of organs and bone on the nearest hospital rooftop.
He hasn't told anyone about his insomnia, and doesn't intend to.
Eventually Kakashi realizes that the sick twisting of irritation inside him stems from the fact that he hasn't eaten anything all day -- eaten nothing and resorted to chewing on too many cherry-drops, medical pills packed with sugar and caffeine to keep Anbu awake during missions. No one remembers where the name first came from. The pills taste like blueberry; they're colored black so that you can pop them in your mouth in the middle of the night and not give yourself away.
The overdose of caffeine makes his throat clench shut. Kakashi rubs his forehead with the heel of his hand and tries to figure out just when life had crested the point of too late.
"You look like you have a headache, mister."
Kakashi is so stunned by the words that seem to appear out of nowhere that he scans the street twice before noticing the small child half-hidden at the far end of the bench. He didn't expect someone to initiate conversation with him. Most villagers leave him alone; the children whisper and stare, but normally from across the street.
He is used to silence. They have a mutual respect.
The Copy Ninja looks for inspiration to reply, and finds only a surprised, "Yes?"
"I'm waiting for my mother," the boy declares in turn, not caring about sequential logic. "Are you waiting for someone too?"
When Kakashi doesn't answer, beaten by the blunt guilelessness of the question, the child steps away from the shadow of the bench and squats in the dirt. He draws thick, intersecting lines on the ground with his finger, sloped angles that should have been squared.
The ring of the shop bell behind him heralds customers who enter and exit in rotation. They carry bags of goods one way, coin wallets the other. Kakashi watches as the child plays tic-tac-toe with himself, and loses.
The crunching of sandals over a dozen candy-shells is Kabuto's forewarning of company. He takes forever to tilt his head back; the glance he directs towards the hapless chuunin could be licentious if it were written in one of Jiraiya's books, painted in ukiyo-e. Companionship is not what Kabuto wants when he sits by himself in the upper reaches of Sound's twisting stairways. Because of this, he makes an effort to look like he hungers for it.
The expression does exactly what it's intended, namely, stops the boy in his tracks and causes him to swallow hard. Afraid. Kabuto sees that; he likes it, even, just as he finds satisfaction in watching cockroaches whirr to life.
No one in Sound knows exactly what to make of Kabuto. For Orochimaru's vaunted right-hand man, Kabuto has spent a lot of time undercover, which should make him an agent at best. A tool. Not a being capable of diving back into the affairs of the village like a dolphin might enter water, warm and rippleless.
Kabuto doesn't spend much of his time trying to catch up with daily business either, but uses his afternoons collecting insects. This makes a lot of people nervous.
"Lord Orochimaru's been calling for you again, sir."
Kabuto's arms are stiff. He has been leaning on them too long, and there are bands of hot needles numbing his wrists where the circulation has been cut off. He focuses on the pain as he answers. "I should have guessed."
The chuunin's eyes skip away, a betrayal of attention that the spy instantly recognizes. Moths lie scattered at Kabuto's feet like a shower of ivory snow. The chuunin speaks in their direction.
"Will you be going to him, sir?"
Kabuto finishes flexing blood into his hands. Without saying anything, he slides down from the banister and walks towards the stairwells that lead to the Sannin's chambers. He ignores the scattered insects as he goes, knowing that the wind will do the work of erasing the confession left behind.
When he sees Tsunade with the red and white blazon of the Hokage's mantle upon her, Jiraiya's first instinct is to laugh. Then it's to cry. He gives up somewhere in the middle, and resorts to asking if she's free that night for dinner.
She agrees, but on the technicality that it isn't a date.
The Leaf is a disaster zone after the Sand-Sound joint attack. Tsunade's conversation orbits technicalities; she talks about mission rankings and increased pay, about the necessity of promoting extra genin this year and if they can't please please please ask the Chuunin Test examiners to be more lenient next time. They need more teams. Alive, preferably.
It takes all the way from appetizers to the dessert before Jiraiya can get a word in edgewise, and this is because Tsunade finally asks him a question. She wants to know if he'll work for Leaf again. Even just training a genin-team would be a great help. The elders are all stuffy and Tsunade hates meetings. Please? For old times?
He tells her he'll think about it.
They both avoid the topic of Orochimaru. There's enough to worry about, what with Sasuke gone and the Akatsuki on the move, and Naruto -- Naruto -- getting older every day. Tsunade hopes Jiraiya has good ideas about how to contain the Nine-tails, should the demon get loose. She asks if Jiraiya is prepared for worst case scenerios.
Jiraiya tells her that he's writing a new book now, one where the heroine runs away with her maid and their joint-ownership pet pig. When Tsunade asks about romance, he says that the primary love interest isn't left behind: he never existed in the first place.