He would've felt better if she had been crying. Crying, blubbering, sobbing--any of that, anything that looked female-like, if she'd been something small and shivery he could put his hands around like a baby bird and comforted her with a few pats on the back and carried her back to Sarutobi-sensei for her to be his problem, and not Jiraiya's. He would've preferred that. It would've made him feel sane.
Tsunade kneeled before the squat stone tomb, her arms wrapped around her stomach and her forehead and knees pressed against the rock. She wasn't shaking. She wasn't crying. He wasn't even all that sure she was alive.
It was her grandfather's tomb. He'd been dead for years, but Tsunade had some old memories of him, a strange strong man with an odd sense of humor and wrinkly skin.
Jiraiya approached slowly, careful not to sneak up behind her, extremely careful to keep some space between them, not to get too close...
"Tsunade? Tsunade, c'mon. Tsunade?"
She didn't hear him. She didn't twitch.
He even kept his voice low, respectful, and most importantly non-offensive. She wasn't swearing at him, wasn't punching him to bits which was a novelty, but he was careful not to do anything that would cause her to attack.
Most women, in grief, became helpless and weak--or at least that was his impression. They became a bit like cows, the trophy-wives and chattel-daughters, easy to lead here and there and needed to be held and protected. He'd seen that and been there and done that and given away his handkerchief more times than he cared to count to an anonymous grieving someone, but this was...Tsunade.
It wasn't that he didn't like Tsunade--or that he didn't respect her. But she was very strong, very proud, and he knew she had loved her brother and he had never, ever, seen her fall or be beaten, had never known her to treat defeat as anything other than another challenge to attack tooth and nail. Whatever happened...whatever happened to them, when Orochimaru lost himself in his stupid old tatty scrolls or inside his greasy head and Jiraiya in his fantasy porn or beer, it was Tsunade who dragged them into the here and now. It was Tsunade who was level, forward. It was her--not them, most certainly not him, that lead the group when everything rained down bad.
Jiraiya had never lost family, had never lost anyone he really, really cared about, and he had never seen her like this...
He wasn't even going to try to touch her. That would get his arm ripped off in a very permanent literal way.
"Tsunade...Tsunade you can't stay here..."
She didn't do anything. It was like he wasn't there. It felt like he wasn't there; or like he shouldn't be there. She shouldn't be acting like this. Her hair hid her face, but she wasn't doing anything. Didn't attack or yell or swear or scorn him, didn't even seem to be breathing...
Despite himself, Jiraiya began to panic.
"You left her alone?! She just lost a brother and you left her alone! What kind of--"
Sarutobi-sensei could've called them a million things. Monsters, teammates, ninjas, friends...except that Tsunade wasn't their friend. Orochimaru wasn't his friend--they weren't friends. They only did what they had to. Right now, he had to bring Tsunade back to the village before she did...before anything...
Jiraiya swallowed awkwardly, paddling upstream without even a boat.
...Before anything stupid happened.
Orochimaru watched them patiently from the trail.
He wasn't going to help. He had told Jiraiya, before Jiraiya had gone down by himself, "She doesn't want to live. If she doesn't want to live, she won't."
Jiraiya hadn't even looked at him. Orochimaru wouldn't move from where he was. Tsunade wouldn't look at him. She wouldn't respond to anything. She wasn't moving but...her body hummed with energy, with invisible shudders. He wasn't about to touch her--she was a small bomb ready to go off, and he didn't want to die today, not by his teammate, not after surviving the invading ninja...
He tried shouting.
"Tsunade! Enough! Get up damn it now's not the time! Fuck! You're a warrior get--"
She was looking at him. He hadn't seen her move, but she was looking at him.
Jiraiya had seen a lot of things, which was why he drank himself into a dull stupor the nights he wasn't able to fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. He'd seen a lot of things, numbed himself over systematically, to the point where he could laugh with the dead and steal their food because he had a sudden attack of the munchies without a twinge of guilt. It was all one in the same to him and god knew that they didn't mind; they were dead, they weren't going to miss some snacks. He'd never lost anyone he loved because he had never loved anyone--he had lost friends, people he liked and maybe could've loved but he'd never actually done it and she knew that and they had left her alone. Because he hadn't known what to do, and she had wanted to be alone and what did he know about grief? She knew they were only there by order.
She was looking at him.
Everything he said felt invasive, traitorous. He didn't belong here, with her, and he knew it and she knew it but it wasn't safe to leave her on her own, out here in the open where anything could happen after she'd just lost her...
She was looking at him. She stood, very slowly.
Jiraiya scrambled backwards hurriedly, trying to put space between them, knowing if she really went for his throat it wouldn't matter if he started running dead flat now; she'd still get him.
He didn't belong there. This was hers. He didn't belong there and the penalty for intruding had never been kind...
"You're a warrior. You're a ninja you have an obligation--"
He didn't see her move again, but there was a grim, bloody smile thrashing for air on her lips. Her eyes were red, but her face was dry.
They both knew he didn't believe in that 'obligation crap'. Or that ninja were only tools, and not people. Or that warriors should be emotionally dead to other people, despite the fact it worked better that way. He was lying and she knew it all she did was give that grim little smile.
I lost my brother today.
Who are you to tell me what to do?
What right do you have to command me?
I lost my brother today.
Why hasn't the world fallen silent? My brother is dead. Why hasn't the world stopped? My brother is dead.
My brother is dead.
Who are you to care?
Jiraiya had always been good at reading people--it was how he stayed alive. He didn't have Tsunade's strength or ruthlessness, or Orochimaru's cunning and freakish adaptations. Jiraiya always felt he was the only sane, human one on a team of freaks, and it was all he could do to stay alive.
Jiraiya opened his mouth. He shut it again.
She watched him, waiting for him to fail so she could look away and forget about him.
For a second, he considered looking towards Orochimaru, a thin dark figure away on the trail and signaling for help. He discarded the idea slower than he wanted to admit.
He didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to deal with her. He'd never lost anyone in his life--never lost anything he could cry over. He had never had much to begin with and hadn't it been him who had mocked her for her pride, her arrogance? Especially when she had looked down her snotty nose at him because she was better at something and he wasn't? He had never taken crap from anyone; he wasn't about to take it from her. What did a spoiled pet know about real life anyway?
"I don't care who's granddaughter you are--you shit and stink and you'll die just like the rest of us! Your family's only human--hey! Let go of my hair! Let go of my--OW! Shit! Ow--sensei! Sen--OW!"
He opened his mouth, and took a few steps closer, well into her striking range. It wouldn't impress her into not attacking; bravado never did. But he did it anyway.
She only watched him. Even getting beat up was better than the way she was watching him. Her eyes were...old. Old, and aching.
He'd only seen those eyes in the few grandma's and grandpa's they had shuffling around the place like old paper--creaky voices and sad depressing tragic stories that always put him to sleep or made him gag until he could run away but she...
She was only fourteen, just like he was.
"This war'll kill us." Jiraiya had told Sarutobi-sensei, in a rare moment of honesty and open dread. "This war'll kill us...and I'm still a virgin. Remember to put that on my tomb--died a virgin, because his stupid sensei wouldn't let him go to the whore-houses on his days off."
He'd been an idiot. He'd been an idiot because he'd been right, and he'd been stupid enough to say it where everyone could hear because he thought he was doing something righteous.
"I'm sorry," and even as he said it he knew the words were trite, cliche. Stupid. Everyone said that--it was a stupid phrase, it was the kind of phrase you said after you accidentally smacked someone while opening a door, not after you violated the fragile painful privacy of someone else's grief because of a stupid order when they've lost the only remaining...
She didn't move.
"Please?" his voice was higher pitched the second time he begged.
She was arrogant because her family was old and she was vain because she was smarter and stronger (and prettier) than he was; he was arrogant because he liked being annoying and pissing people off. She had bent his wrists the wrong way, close to the point of breaking in one of those childish, playground games where he had to beg for mercy to make the pain stop. He never begged her though; or, when he did beg her because there was no one around to save him, he always slipped a dead fish or bit of wet cold mud between her cleavage or in her panties when he could manage it then ran like hell. He never meant it, when he said, 'mercy.' He only said it to gain more time.
She stared at him, dead to the world.
He opened his mouth again, ready to beg again, ready to be sincere and honest and give her anything if she would just come back with them. Her eyes half-closed and she shook her head lightly. He was able to breathe again.
'Go,' she mouthed at him silently. Her jaw was stiff, taut.
Jiraiya hesitated, and then shook his head.
She mouthed words again, her voice dead and face stiff and dry, movements subtle and hard to read, and she had to repeat herself before he could understand her.
'Where I can't see you.'
He nodded, started to shuffle away gratefully, and added at the last minute, "But only until sunset."
She didn't respond. She didn't even turn around to acknowledge him.
Orochimaru followed him into the trees without question, still looking a bit bored with proceedings but patiently quiet. He watched Tsunade with slight interest, but Jiraiya knew that if things went dooky-shaped it would have to be him running out there to save her or stop her from doing something...stupid, and hope he wasn't killed in the process. Orochimaru wouldn't do a thing to help.
If she doesn't want to live, she won't.
I've no intention of dying.
Tsunade leaned against the side of the tomb, staring out at nothing. It was hours. She didn't move, didn't cry, didn't scream or do anything Jiraiya had always associated with women grieving. Or even Tsunade. Or just grief. Even the old men, the old fighters, looked sad when their comrades fell, went grim and soft and quiet, or got shitting-pissed and went berserker and killed and killed and killed until they got killed or were all worn out in the end.
He'd never seen anyone just...stand there. Frozen. Frozen and dead to the world.
Afternoon crept to a close. The sun fell. The stars came out, gradually.
Tsunade still hadn't moved. Jiraiya ached, squirmed, but didn't interfere. Orochimaru got bored, found a comfortable spot, and curled up to sleep.
It was several hours before dawn. Tsunade left without a word to them, without shaking herself awake, moving only on automatic. Jiraiya slapped Orochimaru's arm and chased after her, flanking her on one side.
If she noticed him, she didn't say a word.
Jiraiya had nearly killed Orochimaru, the morning after they'd returned in her wake. Tsunade had gone to her family's estate, and in a surprising show of solidarity Jiraiya and Orochimaru had both returned together to the Academy dorms where less-politically powerful soldiers slept. It was cheaper than providing them with individual apartments and supplies, and more convenient to move them out. It was supposed to bring them closer together as a team, living in close proximity to each other, but it only made Jiraiya wish he were on another team. Or that he could go back to his own house.
"You surprised me," Orochimaru remarked as they went in. "I didn't think you would stay with her."
"I'm her teammate," Jiraiya said, repeating what Sarutobi-sensei had told him over and over again, until he died from sheer boredom. "It was an order."
"It was an order," Orochimaru agreed. "It wasn't because you cared for her. We're the last of our class still alive. Selfishness makes us strong."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"An enemy loves a soldier ready to die for a cause--they have the same goal in mind. Men ready to die for glory always die; her brother was a fool. He would've died sooner or later anyway."
"Shut up." He was too tired to do more. He was too tired to think.
"You would never die for me," Orochimaru gave him a sidelong glance, sinister yellow eyes candid and helpful. "I would never die for you. Or her. We defend each other because it gets the job done--because it was an order. We aren't ready to die for anything, so we haven't died. We aren't ready."
"You're a bastard." Weak, he knew, but he meant every syllable.
"I'm right," Orochimaru corrected. "We've survived this long because we're selfish, while the others die stupidly. No one remembers their names; in a hundred years, no one remembers who they were or why they died. That's glory? Honor? That's worth dying for?"
"We're going to the same place," Orochimaru pointed out.
Jiraiya almost slapped him. Almost. He was taller than Orochimaru--bigger. Orochimaru had a fragile bone structure and skinny pale body. His dark hair hung limply over his narrow face, his robe over his bony shoulders.
He wanted to hit him. Mostly out of frustration--it'd been a long night, a longer day, and then an even longer night and he still hadn't slept or even rested.
It wasn't too much because he disagreed; there was a trick to surviving, it was a skill you could learn. If you rushed into danger, full of heroic intention, you would be very brave and noble, and very dead rather quickly, because a pure heart wouldn't protect you from anything. Between the noble and the coward, Jiraiya always picked the role with the best chances of surviving. It was technically treason; as a ninja, he was supposed to be willing to give his life, even eager to give everything, to complete the mission. With the amount of missions he'd shirked or only half-completed, he should have had his rank, his head protector revoked a long time ago. He rather enjoyed the solitary confinement; it meant he could nap undisturbed by anyone for days. If people were stupid enough to call him a coward for that, he couldn't care less about what they thought.
But the village was low on resources, on ninja, and the raging war showed no signs of slowing or becoming anything resembling humane--besides, Jiraiya and his team had a reputation for surviving, and almost always completing their tasks, despite their youth. His failings were overlooked. He did have his pride, a way; if it were possible, he completed the mission. If it were suicide, he didn't.
But his...the way she'd looked.
The way the body had been torn apart--unrecognizable. Young. So damn young and tiny. There hadn't been enough body to destroy; it was too small.
The way she'd looked at him. The silence. Grief.
Orochimaru didn't know shit. Jiraiya would admit he didn't know anything either, but he'd never be arrogant enough to judge.
"Fuck you," Jiraiya spat. "I hope they get you next."
"You're more likely."
"I'm getting drunk, stick. Fuck this all..."
"And that'll save you?" Orochimaru had asked Jiraiya's retreating back. "Alcohol? Escapism?"
"Bitch," Jiraiya hissed over his shoulder.
He was the sane one. He didn't care what anyone else said; he was the sane one.
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