Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha or Naruto. The only thing I own is the plot.

Beta: Michelle T.,

Jiraiya Interlude: An International Puzzle. Hello, Sunagakure!


- One and a half month later -


When the camel-drawn wagon ambled towards the final turnpike before Sunagakure, it was near sundown. The guide sat at the front and as he steered his camels onward he prattled on and on about all the great things to see and do in the Village Hidden in the Sand.

"Have you ever been to Sunagakure before, Jiraiya-san?" he asked but didn't wait for a response. "People say it's the most beautiful city in the desert and I can't help but agree. Have you ever seen the cedar and acacia trees in full bloom? People say those two don't naturally bloom together. They have different seasons. But in Suna they do, and I tell you. It' a sight to remember, seeing pink and yellow flowers and green grass on top the sand. And that's only at the gate of the village. If you come up the mesa fields in the West, they grow other sorts of flowers there. Lavender and rosemary, and something else I don't know the name of, for medicinal purposes. There are also fruit trees. Peaches and plums and cherries on the side. And they are always blooming so the air smells so good you wouldn't believe it." He went on, prattling, appearing very much a man in love with his home. He looked young, maybe nineteen, with an air about him that said he just got this job fresh from the fair set up by Suna to attract yet more new labour to its fold but months ago. His skin color and hair and the manner of his dress told Jiraiya he wasn't born here in Suna or even Kaze no Kuni to begin with, but it was obvious that the guide didn't lack for love of this land.

You're so vanilla. How the hell did a kid like you end up in a place like Suna? Thought Jiraiya as he looked at the guide's hands, at the calluses formed not from practicing with kunai and weapons but from manual labor and keeping the reins of transport camels, and then at the hint of flabs in his middle from sitting on the driver seat for far too long. It wasn't that Suna discouraged civilian citizens within its walls. It was just that the village had such a hardcore militaristic population that it was difficult for civilians with no prior connection to ninja to make a life within it. Just like Kirigakure or the majority of other Hidden Villages, Sunagakure didn't earn its Red Sand epithets for nothing. Or at least, that was how it used to be before somebody started making miracles happen in Suna. At this rate, Jiraiya almost expected to see the their infamously cranky miser of a Kazekage to come skipping down the gate to greet him in a pink tutu and matching slippers. Wouldn't that be a sight to remember?

"Can't say I have ever seen a tree blooming in Suna," replied Jiraiya amicably from the seat of the open carriage. He had on one of his less colorful attires and his trusty backpack was lying at his feet. The carriage had space for six, but Jiraiya was sitting on the rust iron bench seat by himself, the other passengers having gotten off at the previous town when a trade hub was being set up. "Can't say I have ever seen a tree in Suna, period." At least not one that wasn't either dead and fossilized since decades ago or locked tight in Suna's single itty bitty little greenhouse.

"In that case, you will be seeing plenty of that soon, Jiraiya-san. Word is that they are growing extra corn and rice to prepare for a new wave of immigrants settling in the new frontier towns. These folks are refugees from warring states up North I hear—some small countries bordering Rain—so they haven't got a lot to them except the clothes on their back and empty stomachs waiting to be filled. Gotta be prepared to feed them all and give them jobs," he declared, as if jobs fell down from the skies and food grew on trees in Sunagakure. Oh wait… Damn, Jiraiya really needed to start getting used to the outlandish rules of this new game.

Then pointing at the streams of travellers—some on horses or camels, some on carriages, some on foot, and even some on what looked to be the road-adapted versions of Yuki no Kuni iconic snowmobile—he said.

"The main Highway lane is barely finished but it's already filled nearly to capacity. Look at all these people, Jiraiya-san. They are all going to Suna too, just like you." There were easily a few hundred people within Jiraiya's immediate range of vision, and the line went on to both ends of the highway, as far as the eyes could see. These were just normal people, civilians, merchants, people hoping to make a life out of brick and mortar business. They weren't toting about camouflage utility belts from their waists or big freaking pointy weapons on their backs. There was even a family on foot about three meters from Jiraiya and the carriage, the mother holding the daughter in her arm and squiring a satchel with the clear plastic cap covered head of a milk bottle peeking out from the opening on one shoulder. The sight was… surprisingly disconcerting to see.

"Suna is the place to be in Kaze these days. Everyone is saying that. They have got plenty of food and jobs for anyone who wants one. They have been opening mining town after mining town, so they gotta fill them up somehow."

The guide turned around and with a conspiratorial look, as if he was sharing some big secret, cupped his hand on his face and stage-whispered.

"Rumor is that this is not the only big project they are kicking off this year. Rumor is that once these roads are done, they are gonna start on something even bigger."

"That so, Noriyori?" Jiraiya stage-whispered back.

"That so, sir. And just Nori is fine," replied the guide, grinning at Jiraiya from over his shoulder. "I always thought my name was a bit too stuffy. Just Nori is much better."

"Alright, Nori," Jiraiya acquiesced to the young man's request. "You reckon they are going to build more of these big roads. How many of these do they want to build anyway?"

"Loads, sir. It's going to crisscross every which way, from border to border and town to town. The plan is that they are going to make the great desert traversable to normal folks like you and I." Nori was under the impression that his client was a civilian like he was. A writer to be exact, one of worthy enough note to be invited by Yogekisha publishing house in Sunagakure to his own book signing session in their shop. Jiraiya didn't see the need to correct his misconception. For the last month, he had been working hard to keep up the pretense of a globe trotting writer on continent-spanning book signing tours. The other week he was in Iwa, dodging kunai from their kunoichi and signing books for their shinobi while wearing only his underpants (fresh from a research session from a famed Iwagakure public bathhouse with those delightful mud baths). The week before that he was skirting the border of Kiri to get photo materials of their purportedly 'walking sex on sticks' Mizukage. He heard she had herself two bodyguards; one a strapping veteran with a husky voice and a chip on his shoulder, the other a fresh faced kid that apparently could lift the famed Hiramekare—one of the legendary Seven Swords of Kiri—with a thumb and forefinger. He also heard that these two stayed with her around the clock and the younger one had sworn to give his life to protect her 'beautiful smile'. Naughty, naughty Mizukage.

"Even the deep desert?" Jiraiya prodded. The heart of Kaze no Kuni was a perilous plain filled with quicksand lakes the size of inland seas, monstrous beasts as big as mountains, and terrible sandstorms that could last months if not years. Only the most seasoned Sunagakure ninja dared go there, and even they wouldn't go without a damn good reason.

"Well, maybe with a little aid from Suna nins?" Nori gave off a boyish smile that reeked of idealistic hope and the rose tinted lens often worn by the very young or very lucky when looking at life. "I don't see why anyone would want to go there, but who knows? There are myths that speak of ruins filled with untouched treasures of past civilizations. Somebody out there may just be daring enough to go in and try their luck."

"But not you?"

"Oh no, sir," replied Nori with a self-conscious smile. "I'm just an ordinary new citizen. Besides which, I'm quite happy with my job at the public conveyance corp. With the number of new roads in the plan and people migrating to Kaze no Kuni, I won't be lacking for things to do anytime soon." He pat the behind of one of the camels good-naturedly, as if to show he was perfectly at home and happy exactly where he was. The animal grunted in response.

"And before this, you were?"

"Refugee, sir."

"I figured you didn't look like the usual Kaze stock. Where from? With that pale skin and those blue eyes, somewhere Northeast I reckon?" Under the desert sun, Noriyori actually looked more red than pale white, but that was merely the sunburn showing up.

"Yes sir. I was in Shirakawa, in Snow, when lord Doto saw fit to off his brother the daimyo, ran his niece the princess Koyuki from the country, and then took over the crown." For the first time ever in their journey, Jiraiya saw a shadow cross Noriyori's face. "It's not like us mere peasants ever had a say in whose butt got to sit on the throne but once he took over, old Doto didn't seem like he much cared for running the place. Instead, he got his sights trained on some bullshit mythical treasure and forgot all about the people beneath him."

Ah, the coup d'etat of Yuki no Kuni. Jiraiya remembered that. It had made a splash in his spy network for about half a day before quickly losing heat. Yuki no Kuni possessed some interesting pieces of military technology but was otherwise an isolated minor country with little stake and effect on the international power balance. There was some discussion on whether the ninja of Konoha should interfere, but in the end, since there was neither monetary gain to be had or political agenda to advance, the council had decided to adopt a non-interference policy towards the entire affair.

"Is that why you left? Because you didn't like the new ruler?"

"When I left, about a third of the population had already kicked the bucket either from starvation or from being frozen by non-stop blizzards. The previous daimyo wasn't perfect, but he at least maintained the national grain reserves and kept the public shelters and power lines functioning. The new one, on the other hand, could care less if the rest of Yuki no Kuni became a massive graveyard as long as he had his warriors, his castle, and whatever junk they had managed to dig up in the old ruins beneath the old daimyo's personal quarter. Some people thought they could come talk to him and change the situation. They died in front of his gate, because he wouldn't open them to some dirty peasants and the blizzard arrived too quick for them to make it back to their village. I hear their corpses are still out there now, buried under the snow and ice because nobody dared come dig them out. That…" Nori's voice was edged with bitterness. "... is why I left."

Tough. But such stories were not rare on the continent. Though the Big Five currently enjoyed a state of peace, minor countries still had squabbles such as these, and if they were minor enough and isolated enough, nobody would shed a tear if they imploded in on themselves and left their citizens to hang. Jiraiya allowed Noriyori a moment of silence before prodding once again. He was in investigative mode now. Part of the reason why he had taken to the field and headed to Suna was to feel out for himself how the 'air' of Sunagakure had changed in the last year and that was a task only done through getting to know its people, or in this case, its new people. Noriyori looked like he wanted to talk. Jiraiya could always start early.

"So… Snow huh? That's out in Aisu bay or Gokotsu bay, isn't it? It's a long road from there to Kaze. Why didn't you settle down in Iron or Waterfall? It's a long way from Yuki to Kaze and I can't imagine the weather out here being very nice to you, what with the constant heat and all."

Noriyori took a moment to haul himself from the heavy silence he had fallen in previously.

"I tried," he said. "But Iron and Waterfall wanted none of Yuki no Kuni washouts. Political liability, they said. Apparently the princess being alive somewhere and the possibility of her returning to duke it out with her dear uncle made it a potential diplomatic faux pas to harbor refugees fleeing from Snow, and nobody wanted any of that. I was going with a bunch of people and we pooled in just enough money for a ride to the border of Earth…"

He paused there, but Jiraiya already knew the next part to come. Earth's economy wasn't as bad as Sand used to be. It was pretty decent actually, but in recent years it had been slowing down as the village demilitarized and its population struggled to seek other sources of income. If there were jobs to be had, they wouldn't be within the reach of refugees with nothing but the clothes on their back. And even if there were, those jobs typically were abusive slave gigs that paid half a nickel for three gold coins worth of labour. Not really something the young Noriyori looked forward to, he deduced. As he thought, his guide simply shook his head as if he was trying to banish a bad memory.

"It didn't work out for most of us. That was when I heard of Sunagakure in Wind and the assistance programs they were rolling out… food and job for anyone who wants them. And there are no shortage of space to put sticks and a roof down and call it a home in the great desert. It was a no brainer for political refugees like us. So we hitched rides across Grass, Fire and then River to arrive at their Northeastern border. They were holding a placement faire near the border. Apparently they had been taking in a lot of refugees and migrants from other nations and had set up entire channels for that. I got this gig there and here I am, an employed man working an honest job. I still have to live in the communal dorm but I haven't tasted food this fresh since… I don't know… maybe five years ago."

Noriyori gave a great big sigh that made him sound like a contented cat about to take a nap under a pleasantly shining sun. He looked forward in the direction of Sunagakure when he said this next part.

"Back then I thought we were all going to die beggars in a ditch somewhere, maybe in some border town trying to flush the Yuki no Kuni washouts from their territory. But here I am. I can't believe how lucky I was. And this is all because of Lord Kazekage and Miko-sama. It's nice to have rulers who actually care about the people, isn't it?" There was an undeniable tinge of hero-worship in Noriyori's voice now, and with good reason too. Nothing bound a person more than giving that same person a future to look forward to, where they had had none before. "I've never been allowed to meet Miko-sama face to face, never even been allowed into Suna proper. They say her security is really tight—that there are people out there who want to harm her for all the good she's done," Noriyori sounded half incredulous, half angry now, as if the thought of someone having a beef with his 'Miko-sama' was the most absurd thing he had ever heard, and he thought the people entertaining that notion must be stark raving mad and should be put down permanently for the good of everyone else around them. "Anyhow, only the old citizens of Suna and the ninja are allowed to meet her these days."

"Truly?"

"It's only prudent after all. There are a lot of refugees in Kaze these days, a lot of 'new citizens'. There are all kinds of people out there. You don't know if they are good folks or if they are bad seeds sown by someone with a grudge just waiting to take roots. I wouldn't ever harm a hair on Miko-sama's head even if I were starving to death and she was made from sweet bread from head to toe. But there are loads of crazy folks out there. One can never be too cautious when it comes to ensuring Miko-sama's safety."

"But don't you at least want to meet her once in your life?"

"Oh I do," replied Noriyori, sounding so earnest and honest it made him appear sixteen instead of nineteen. "I want to at least be able to thank her in person… and Lord Kazekage too of course. But if my wanting to thank her can potentially lead to her being put in danger, then my wanting to thank her can stow it."

"So you won't be able to meet her… at all?"

"I tell you what, Jiraiya-san. I'm young and I have a long life ahead of me. I'm gonna get myself a wife and a family. I will raise my kids to be good, loyal ninja of Sunagakure. Then when my kids grow up, they can meet with Miko-sama and thank her in my place. Who knows? Maybe then they'll be good enough to do something for her, protect her even. Wouldn't that be great?"

The Kazekage is a shrewd fellow, thought Jiraiya as he listened to the young guide proclaiming his life goal of raising his future kids to become good and loyal soldier to the state of Suna, and he's playing the long strategy in the raise-your-own-empire game. Among the Big Five, Suna didn't do too well in the population category, partly because their birth rate hadn't been able to catch up with the staggering number of their deaths through the previous two wars and partly because they had to maintain strict watch over their population growth because of the constant food shortage. In some way, this was a very effective check on their military prowess. A limited population pool translated into a similarly limited military. Every war needed its fodder, and ninja wars were no exception to this rule. If another war were to break out now, they would go through their force much faster than villages such as Iwa, Konoha and Kumo. The Kazekage must know this and was now taking steps to rectify that. People like Noriyori, people like the refugees now heading towards Sunagakure with hopeful looks on their faces and dreams of a bright future in their hearts, all of them with their souls indebted to their Miko-sama and their lord Kazekage made for perfect cannon fodder in the short run. And if luck favored them and turned it into the long run instead, then they would make for a similarly perfect pool of new blood to replenish Sunagakure's diminishing military. Their children would become, as Noriyori put it, good and loyal soldiers to Sunagakure so that they could one day thank their Miko-sama and protect her in their parent's place. And all of this was done with the added benefits of extra good press for Sunagakure with the international community, as well as fill their flagging national labour pool.

Cunning bastard, thought Jiraiya. And to think, he did all this using only a single leverage, the Miko girl. He'd turned her into symbol of hope for the people. He'd turned her into bait to lure people like Noriyori to his country in droves. He'd turned her into a political chip to push around the crown of Kaze no Kuni. A classic example of full potentials being realized in the hands of a competent and resourceful ruler. What would have been a luxury toy in the hands of other villages, something that was nice to have but not necessarily needed, had become a weapon of formidable transformative power in the Kazekage's hands. Jiraiya was suddenly reminded of Nene Ojite and her theory on how the Miko was a mere tool for the village to control and manipulate its own people. He didn't think that was necessarily all true, but based on what he had seen and heard here on the road, Nene wasn't entirely wrong either.

The carriage ambled on, and soon they could see the final turnpike station. They were travelling at especially slow speeds for ninja, but Jiraiya didn't mind. He knew he was being watched… had been watched ever since he stepped foot into the territory of Sunagakure. Going slow or fast didn't really matter but going the quick way likely would only attract more attention to him.

The turnpike station was built into a mountain pass—a convenient funnel to control the crowd in case anything too exciting happened. Jiraiya saw the fleeting shadows of archers at the top of the cliffs. With ease born of frequent practice, Noriyori steered the animals towards one of the lane and as he passed the officer handed over his card and turnpike fee. Around them, other travellers also neatly aligned themselves into lanes as they passed the toll booths.

This final junction also served as a redirecting station for refugees seeking a place in Kaze no Kuni. The majority didn't get to go to Sunagakure itself due to obvious security issues. Instead, they would be rerouted towards other satellite towns that had been set up beforehand depending on their profiles, special skills and previous professions. Farmers to the right, craftsmen and other professions to the left. The few that were allowed to forge onward were merchants with business in Sunagakure itself, returning old citizens, and the rare few tourists sanctioned by the state… such as Jiraiya.

The carriage started once again and as it passed the turnpike, the rumored changes that Sunagakure had been undergoing were immediately apparent.

Grass…Green grass.

An entire carpet of grass, grown on top the sand that was ubiquitous in the land of Wind.

Jiraiya sat up straight in his seat, eyes down to the ground, marvelling. He wasn't quite sure what he was expecting to see. News coming from their scouts and ambassador office in Sunagakure had been… difficult to comprehend in a way. They had talked about trees, a lot of them. They had talked about farms and fields of medicinal flowers. They had talked about fruit gardens and groves of timber set aside for industrial and construction uses. They had talked about sweeping changes to social policies and public welfare in Sunagakure. Jiraiya had comprehended all that… on a mostly abstract level. The image of a desert bound Sunagakure was too deeply ingrained in his memory to be wiped away by reports with nothing but words and statistics to describe the changes Suna had undergone.

Though he wasn't quite sure what to expect, somewhere in his head, Jiraiya had envisioned the Suna farms to be treated in the way new and experimental ninjutsu applications usually were. Contained and detached from the public. Too valuable, too precious to be left in the domain of the common folks. Fenced in and jealously guarded. But this was nothing at all like what he thought.

Grass, wild grass left to grow with abandon, impossibly thick and lush despite a foundation of sand and salted, parched earth. With a closer look, Jiraiya could see that the grass was in fact transforming the very land they grew on. Patches of sand had clumped together where the grass took roots, their color darkened with stranded moisture. An example of micro-terraforming before his very eyes. Questions reeled in Jiraiya's head. How in the hell? What sustained them? How did they take roots to begin with? Desert sand grains were always in motion, always going from one place to another, which in turn made them completely useless for agricultural purposes. The grass shouldn't even have anything to put their roots into. And yet… and yet they did. Jiraiya was seeing it with his own eyes.

Mokuton was a well-known legend in Konohagakure, but even the Shodaime couldn't create life where there was nothing to sustain it. The great forests that he grew during his reign only survived within the fertile territory of Hi no Kuni. They knew that too, both Konoha and Suna. They had tried to grow a forest in the desert using the First's power before... and failed spectacularly. What would have been a sign of good faith and the promise of future collaboration between two great villages had instead become a bitter reminder of failed hopes and lost dreams, an unforgettable stain in a long and difficult relationship of strained allies.

One simply just didn't create life and sustain it without mother nature's approval. They had learned that lesson well from that one incident. True creation power, the ability to conceive something from nothing and have it last, was a myth, something said to be possessed by the Sage of Six Paths alone. And here, still miles away from Sunagakure where they had purportedly grown massive farms on top of dead land, Jiraiya was treated to proof of the contrary. And in something so frivolous too. Farms had practical uses. Trees had practical uses. Flowers could have medicinal purposes… but wild weeds?! The unwanted and mostly useless stuff that grew in someone's unkempt backyard? The power of creation on par with the mythical Sage of Six Path was used… to grow weeds…in the desert... The gesture was akin to some spoiled rich kid building a toilet out of solid gold. It was a blatant show-off, an in-your-face boast, a statement declaring to all that the leaders of Sunagakure now had the power to defy the laws of nature itself. Now what were you going to do about that?

…. Or it could be a genuine attempt to gradually terraform useless sandland into arable soil… Jiraiya felt himself torn in between the two possible explanations. The wizened veteran in him viewed the grass carpet as a declaration of power, because why else would a military village bother with such a showy demonstration of their new ace in the hole aside from the time honored tradition of grandstanding? But the old dreamer in him, the one that had once written that disgustingly naive book that told the tale of a gutsy ninja, wanted to believe differently. Everything he had seen in this new Sunagakure, the hope, the future, the thick green life, was so out of the ordinary, so out of the realm of established rules and laws, that he wasn't quite sure if it was smart to apply conventional rules to the situation any longer.

"Do you want to stop for a moment?" Nori's voice broke Jiraiya from his sudden stupor. Turning up to look at his guide, Jiraiya saw that he wasn't the only one in the crowd who had been affected by the sight of green wild grass growing and thriving in the desert. But whereas Jiraiya had reacted with quiet dismay and confusion, the people on the other hand, reacted with undisguised delight. Around them, some refugees had stopped to marvel at the sight. A few people had even knelt down and felt out the grass with their hands, as if to confirm that they were really there and this was not just a sight cooked up by their mind and the heat of the desert. Amazed murmurs rippled across the stream of people new to Sunagakure, a seemingly impossible rumor now confirmed as truth in their minds. A couple small children had even sat down on the soft grass and rolled around, laughing with childish abandon.

"This part is really popular with first timers," Noriyori explained with a proud smile, as if he had been born and raised in Suna and not a migrant of less than a year of tenure. "Nobody believes they can grow trees in the desert until they see this. We can stop for a few minutes if you want to… you know… feel out the grass and see how soft they are."

"That's nice but… no," replied Jiraiya finally while gesturing at the long line behind them. "I wouldn't want to hold up anybody."

And on they went. Five minutes in and they were greeted by a second line of green. Rows of trees stood before them. The cedar and acacia that Noriyori mentioned. According to his intel, the planting of these trees took place around four to five months ago. The 'Miko outings' that facilitated the planting and growth were stifling affairs where said Miko was always surrounded by a small army of handlers. The trees before him looked absolutely nothing like four to five months old saplings. They stood tall, casting their shadows over wide patches of land. They were titans that looked like they must have been here for forty, fifty years at the very least and not a scant few months. As the carriage meandered into their ranks and the sun above their heads disappeared over the thick, leafy canopy, Jiraiya was suddenly and very sharply reminded of his own home. The trees here were planted thickly enough that once the carriage got to the center, his eyes could see no hint outside these trees of the greatest desert of the continent. Only the scent - a curious mix of desert aridness, crisp budding leaves, and tree sap - was somewhat different.

As they ambled by stout, grizzled trunks, Jiraiya looked down. Just like the grass carpet outside, the ground here was transformed, the sand grains thicker, pregnant with moisture and clumping together in sizable balls, the earth more solid somehow and possessing a slightly darker color. It was far from the richly fertile soil of Hi no Kuni, but this earth here was clearly no longer the dead land Jiraiya had associated with the desert of Kaze no Kuni.

Reaching out with one hand, Jiraiya touched the bark. Months old trees usually had smooth skin, but these bore the signs of time, of countless sand storms and wind blades bearing down on them. Running his fingers along the grained texture, Jiraiya thought of the rows of trees back in Hi no Kuni, right at that place where the woods of the Land of Fire met the arid air and frequent dust storms of the Land of Wind. The trees there had a texture just like this, weathered and roughened by sand and storm and the occasional hail. Beneath that layer of skin thrummed… something. It was the energy of nature, of life. It was the third component of senchakra… except it was not. Not quite. Jiraiya could find no words to describe the peculiar readings he was getting from his senses. The art of the sages was one that allowed its practitioners to tap into the primordial force of all life in this world itself; and life, as Jiraiya had often experienced, felt like a constantly moving stream, a great river of unfathomable depth and size, the speed of its flow sedated but never stopping, never slowing. This on the other hand… instead of a river, it was fire… no… it was starlight, shining and spinning and in constant motion. It was heat and luminescence. It was life, condensed somehow. Beneath the roughened barks of these trees and from their roots deep in the earth was a stream made entirely of moving starlight, and it could only be felt by those trained in the Sage arts.

Not wanting to draw undue attention to himself, Jiraiya withdrew his hand from the tree and settled back into his seat, eyes distant as he turned the thoughts over in his head. What potent energy, he thought as he felt the lingering tingles on his fingers where he had made contact. This was, without a doubt, the source of the abnormal chakra activities the sensor squads reported. Could it also be the source of the Sungate? Quite possible. It had thrummed with untold power in Jiraiya's senses, and that was only the left over, the residue of the source itself. And the most likely source of that power… If Jiraiya could get into contact with this Miko girl, he would surely be able to gain solid confirmation. It would be difficult, what with the thick security surrounding the girl and Sunagakure's obvious attention to Jiraiya's every movement while in their territory, but if he could pull it off, the things he could learn from observing the source alone...

Jiraiya reined in his voracious researcher's impulse and made a mental note to ask for a live specimen of one of these Suna trees from an agent of Konoha later on. He made plans for possible experiments. That would have to be enough to appease his curiosity in the event that he couldn't make contact with the girl.

They ambled on. In another fifteen minutes, the line of carriages and caravans stopped at a check-in station. The great stone gate of Sunagakure loomed before them. And the trees, in full bloom just as Noriyori promised. The once sturdy but dreary sandstone arch of Sunagakure was overshadowed by riots of colors all around it. Pink peaches, white oranges and apples, red pomegranates and purple lavender, all of them in full bloom. And of course, green from the leaves and vines. And the vines… the vines were everywhere, snaking from crevices, strewing from every nook and corner, and crawling up and across the walls. And they too were flowering. The scents were also just as Noriyori promised. The rich tang of spices and ripe fruits in the air, a sweet vivaciousness that could not be stifled by the arid wind of the desert.

For a second, Jiraiya felt very keenly the suspicion that he had stepped into some twilight land, that some sneaky ninja had cast a powerful genjutsu on him. The image presented to him was too incongruous with the perpetually drab and dreary Sunagakure that he knew. Then he reminded himself that things had changed and he best get on with the program. It would be a bad ninja who could not quickly adapt to an unknown situation and while Jiraiya was many things, a bad ninja he was not.

Noriyori stopped the carriage, presenting his single charge to the station master. Jiraiya handed over his passport, a handsome leather bound booklet with the stamp of Hi no Kuni, and beneath it the sigil of Konohagakure, on the cover. The first page, which was made of a rich ivory paper stock with perfectly rounded corners, read…

Ha no Jiraiya

Jounin

Ninja registration number: 002301

Village: Konohagakure no Sato

Below that was a spread of basic bio details. Then at the bottom, a long string of numbers in specific color codes that denoted his diplomat rank. A-2, the second highest rank possible, lower only to the Hokage and perhaps specifically designated councilors themselves, and fully authorized to speak on the behalf of Konohagakure no Sato in foreign territories. Not that Jiraiya made much use of that status… officially.

The station master, a grizzled ninja who looked like he had survived a few wars in his own lifetime, carefully inspected Jiraiya's passport for a full five minutes before glancing at him.

"Everything fine, shinobi-san?" he replied good-naturedly, showing not a whit of discomfort.

"Well, your papers look to be in order, Jiraiya-dono," said the station master in a perfectly polite tone, as if he weren't discreetly fingering the alarm button hidden into the inside of his sleeve. "We are always honored to host a Konohan diplomat of your import of course. It is merely that… typically when Konoha sends its voices, it sends notifying mails ahead. And… we have received no such mails before your arrival today."

Jiraiya laughed. Two could play at this game of fake courtesy. "That would be because I'm not actually on duty. I haven't been for the last year. I'm on a vacation you see. A long one. I was in Kiri last week, and before that Tsuchi. I was on my way back to Konoha when I thought I should make a bit of a detour, visit our good neighbor for a few days before heading home again. Didn't think I needed to notify the folks back home for that mail to happen. I hope it won't be a problem…" he let the sentence dangle for a second. "... will it? I can always summon mail my folks back in Konoha right now if it is. Get you that notifying mail and all."

There was no need to specify who his folks were. He was Jiraiya of the sanin, the student of the reigning Hokage, who was infamous as a god of shinobi. He counted the top echelons of Konohagakure among his circle of close acquaintances. His paper all but stated that he enjoyed diplomatic power second only to the Hokage himself while on foreign territories.

"Of course not, Jiraiya-dono," the station master smiled a tight smile. It didn't even come up to his eyes. "It's no problem. We would hate for the Hokage to be bothered by such trivialities."

Of course it was a problem. A high ranking Konohan diplomat and one among the renowned sanin showed up completely unannounced at the gate of Sunagakure amidst growing international interests and heightened national security. If that didn't send warning bells through all levels of Suna intelligence and homeland security divisions, then Jiraiya would eat his shoes. Anybody else, any other high ranking officials from any other villages, and Suna would be liable to give them the boot right then and there… if it cared to let them go alive at all. However, because of Konoha and Suna's official alliance, Suna could ill afford to make a fuss. Suna and Konoha were allies, and so bilateral peace time treatises were in effect. Suna and Konoha were allies, therefore, it was only normal for a Konohan nin to seek temporary refuge within Suna itself without needing an excess of paperwork. Suna and Konoha were allies, therefore, should the Hokage heard that Suna gave his student undue troubles over technicalities, perhaps he would get into his head the idea that he needed to exact some sort of retributions over the perceived slight. Suna and Konoha were allies, but that did not mean they were equal nor their relationship a fair give and take one.

And so that the boat did not rock unnecessarily, Suna would just have to shut up and deal with it.

The station master carried out the customs process in little more than a minute, his hands flying over the pages of the passbook, officiating stamp going down on some with quite, muted thumps. Then he handed the passbook back to Jiraiya.

"Welcome to Sunagakure, Jiraiya-dono."

"Many thanks, my man," Jiraiya grinned at him as he made to walk pass the custom booth.

"It's no problem. We hope you have a great time in our village," replied the station master smoothly. "Though, may I suggest paying a visit to our Kazekage? It would be… remiss… of us to not hold a proper welcoming for a high ranking diplomat of Konoha, off duty or not."

"Thanks. I'll remember that," said Jiraiya over his shoulder as he passed under the stone arch where gaggles of greeters awaited their specified clients. He would actually do that too… once he was done with what he set out to do in Sunagakure.

A man wearing a dove grey turban and a Konoha headband stepped out from within the throngs of people and called him by name - "Jiraiya-sama." - before his hands flashed through a series of identification codes for Konohan agents stationed in foreign territories.

"Ha no Nyudo, chief of Konoha ambassadorial office in Sunagakure. I was told to expect you."

In one smooth move, Jiraiya hefted his enormous backpack off his shoulder before chucking it at Nyudo without breaking his stride.

"Catch, chief."

Nyudo's hand shot out, seized the bag in mid-air, then sagged for a split second at the unexpected weight before stabilizing. Jiraiya scanned the crowd, before nodding at the ambassadorial chief.

"So, I'm told things have been happening at your post. Fun things. Real flashy it seems. Folks back home are all excited about it."

Nyudo wasn't registered as a sensor on record. However, if the sheer size and potency of the Sungate was anything like the sensor squad had described, then even a blind ninja should be able to feel something were he to stand at the very epicenter.

"That… is one way to put it, Jiraiya-sama." Nyudo joined him as they entered Sunagakure proper.

Above them, the stone arch gave way to clear blue skies dotted over with more colors than Jiraiya could tell, and the vista widened to reveal the new Sunagakure.

It was here that Jiraiya stopped. It was, in a word, beyond all expectations. He breathed in, crushed his disbelief, and took a good long look at the busy streets, the bustling people, and a village seemingly reborn before him. If seeing Sunagakure from the outside felt like he was skirting the border of twilight land, then stepping foot inside it, seeing for himself how it had changed within only a year must be as if Jiraiya had already passed that border and ventured deep into some other alternate reality.

"...Things have really changed around here, haven't they?"

"You don't know the half of it… Jiraiya-sama."

Jiraiya scanned the crowd, the skyline, the buildings around them. Just the civilians and some normal nin. It would be a few more minutes until a black op squad was dispatched to tail him for the entirety of his stay in Suna. He turned around, looked Nyudo in the eye.

"Tell me everything."


TBC in Jiraiya Interlude 3


A/N: uhhh…. Long time no see? Last time we spoke was… February of 2016…when I promised to finish the interlude soon. Dang that was a long time. Nearly a year … Well, to be perfectly honest my friends, 2016 was rough... to all of us. Right after the posting of the last chapter, I got sick with a long bout of flu. After that, a big coastal pollution scandal happened in my country (worse than massive oil spill, hundred tons of dead fishes washed up the shore, the destruction of several island's ecospheres, some people died from being in the heavily polluted water for too long). Then after that a government cover-up of said scandal. I went to the coastal region to see what was up with a few friends, ended up being tagged by government… uh… workers. I had to go away for a while, went to Cambodia wearing some ridiculous wig to shake the.. uh… tails. I bought a cool book in Cambodia by the way, the Tibetan book of the dead. So cool! Then I went back home and suddenly there were riots and protests happening everywhere in the country. After that, a mass media blackout. Some activists were arrested. There was mentioning of … less than gentle persuasion techniques being used on them. One person fasted in prison for a week and a half. I don't know if he's alive. I hope he is. He has a 4 years old daughter. Then after that a big brouhaha at the magazine where I worked. I quit my job because magazine writing is a special kind of soul sucking drudge work. My love for writing was dead for a while because I spent too much time being hounded by advertorial clients. I concentrated on my publishing and biographer services. On the side I tried to get back into writing fanfics again, tried to find my love for writing again. It's tough, but I'm back now.

Hoping nothing big is going to come along and derail me in 2017. 2017 please don't treat me like 2016 did. The effing bastard…

1/ This chap is pretty much lots of world building and showing Suna through the eye of an outsider, in this case Jiraiya. I'm not very happy with the ending here. I actually scrapped the part at the last check-in station a few times and wrote it over dozens of seating where I got increasingly distracted by other things. Not happy with it at all. But the current version is… well… it's not bad I guess. And I don't want to lose more time dilly dallying. I just want to get a move on and start writing more. At least more than last year. It feels like I barely wrote anything last year at all. I have so many plans too. This is also the reason why I split the interlude again because the last part should be another 5k words at least…. Probably… eh… and I really really don't want to delay updating for another… I don't know… few weeks maybe? It's so hard to regain momentum. So hard. But I gotta keep trying. I may come back to edit or even do minor rewrites on this part, but... later. Can't do it now, I'll just... stall again. I need to just keep moving.

Next part: Jiraiya hunts down the illusive Miko while evading his tails. Of course, this being Jiraiya, he does (attempt to) catch her… in a public bathhouse. Cue shenanigans and a beaten black and blue Jiraiya being dragged (by a supremely pissed Oren) before Kazekage Rasa.

2/ My goal for this year is to advance FtGoG past the reveal of the central plot twist (aka the secret of why and how Kagome is in the Naruto verse and why she is fused, literally, with the full Shikon no Tama) and start on the romance of the story (which happens after the Chuunin exam, Hah… I have big plans for that part. Watch me sharpen my canon-gutting knife). For those people who can't wait for the romance part, I wrote a small snippet titled 'This ain't a love song' and posted it on Ask Sythe tumblr account (in the fanfic and excerpt section). Warning: jump to conclusions at your own perils.

I also plan to complete From the Garden of Gods: Clan War Era AU this year. Oh yeah, did I tell you guys about that at all? I started a… well… it's not a full fic, but it is an AU of FtGoG with the premise that instead of landing in Kaze near the start of the manga, Kagome landed in the middle of nowhere in Naruto verse… during the clan war era. Go check it out!

3/ I should post the next part of FtGoG soon. In a week or two, hopefully. It's nearing Tet festival. I have free time. I can do this! My next big book project is not until March. I have until then. Full speed ahead to fanfic writing kingdom! AHHHHH! FIGHTING!

I'm also doing an art book giveaway on my tumblr page in celebration of two friends of mine getting published in an art illustrated poem book project. Partly because I'm an art mag writer and art collector. Check it out if you like art books and print illustration?

Happy New Year!

Awesomesaurus (I decided to change my name. As to why… well… if you read the latest chap of Clan War Era, you will know)