2 - Trembling Hands
Monitors beeped in an incessant, rhythmic pattern, assuaging Jiraiya of his fears about the experimental process for a blissful moment before reality hit again. Had Minato's plan worked, and was Kushina going to be alright? A quick glance at Kakashi revealed the toad sage wasn't alone in his worrying; a bead of sweat trickled down the side of the young man's face, disappearing behind the fabric of his absorbent mask. Kushina lay silent, appearing motionless apart from her chest's subtle rise and fall. Her protruding belly was caked with faded blotches of dried blood, still visible beneath the covers that kept her warm. Minato emerged from a side door. The edges of his Hokage cloak's sleeves were damp with water from washing off his unconscious wife's blood.
"How is she?" he asked Jiraiya, giving Kushina's near-lifeless body a furtive glance. "I just hope I made it in time. I've already failed enough tonight."
Kakashi sighed. "Sensei, you've done the best you can."
"Kakashi's right," Jiraiya said with a nod. "You can't beat yourself up over this. No one knows what will happen in a situation like this, and none of us could've seen the attack coming."
While Minato must have known that they were right, a quick look at his crestfallen expression made it clear none of the rationalizations his student and teacher gave were getting through. It was understandable, but Jiraiya hated knowing his prodigy of a student was going through so much pain. No matter what logical arguments they presented him with, at the end of the day, keeping the village - and his wife - safe were his utmost responsibility, and he had failed to execute either.
"I need to go see to Naruto," Minato muttered. "He may have woken up, and at the very least, one of his parents should be there to keep him company." His words were laced with an undertone of guilt.
Grunting in silent acceptance that he couldn't do or say anything of significance, Jiraiya nodded. "Go on, Minato. We'll stay with her."
Hands still in his pockets, Kakashi turned to his master. The boy's casual attitude even in the midst of tense situations never ceased to amaze Jiraiya. There was no doubt that this ability would serve him well as a ninja. "If anything happens, we'll let you know, sensei."
"Thank you, both of you."
Minato gave a curt bow and vanished, no doubt having already marked his son for easy teleportation. Jiraiya blew out a breath, just as impressed as ever by Minato's expert use of the Second Hokage's Flying Thunder God Jutsu. The Fourth was talented beyond his years. Member of The Legendary Sannin or not, Jiraiya hardly felt qualified to be his sensei. The Toad Sage smiled to himself in spite of the current predicament.
No. Thank you, Minato.
Less than a minute later, the rhythmic beeping increased in frequency, and another electronic noise, this one more unpleasant, sounded from one of the monitors. Doctors rushed in, examining Kushina and reading off information from scanners. One of them removed her IV and inserted another, while the remaining few did their best to stabilize her, spouting frantic comments across the room to one another. The noticeable trembling in each of the medical professionals' movements didn't inspire much confidence. They must have known that if the Hokage's wife died on their watch, it was career suicide.
After a few minutes of chaos, the beeping slowed enough that the lead doctor felt comfortable dismissing a few of the medical team members so they could see to other patients. He removed his mask, yanked off both elastic gloves, and pushed open the door to the main hallway, stopping to take some steadying breaths. He whipped out a small notepad and jotted some notes, looking up to find Jiraiya staring back at him from two feet away, with Kakashi at his side. The few seconds it took for the doctor's brain to process that one of The Sannin was in front of him were filled with silence.
"What is happening in there?" Jiraiya demanded to know as he and the doctor locked eyes. "Tell me everything."
Fighting past his initial shock, the doctor sputtered, "Ah, Lord Jiraiya! Oh, of course. You see, Miss Uzumaki's condition is...unpredictable. She is alive through sheer will and her bloodline's natural large chakra pool and resilience. The Jinchuuriki extraction, combined with using her sealing jutsu for a prolonged period, has taxed her greatly." The doctor looked through the glass at her, his eyes full of uncertainty. "She is a fighter for sure. Anyone else, ninja or not, would have died hours ago."
"So, what can you do?" Kakashi asked. "Does she have a chance of making it?"
The doctor flinched. He seemed to understand with full clarity how important his next words were, and feared the response he would receive if they weren't to Jiraiya's liking. He inhaled once, preparing himself to speak again. "In all honesty...we don't know. The Nine Tails chakra Lord Fourth was able to retrieve is helping her to a degree, but…." The doctor gulped, his forehead glistening with sweat.
"But what?" Jiraiya pressed.
"But there is a high likelihood she will still die, as her injuries are too great compared to the amount of chakra that was returned to her. I've called for some of our medical ninja, but I'm not sure they could bring her back from something this severe. I expect she has less than a few hours, factoring in her levels of endurance and the slow healing rate of her injuries."
"A few hours?!" Kakashi echoed, stunned.
The doctor raised his hands in a defensive gesture. Seeing this hurt Jiraiya, as he would never harm a fellow Leaf ninja. He must have looked furious, and to be fair, there was no time to play around here, but he didn't want to frighten anyone, so he did his best to soften his serious expression.
"Thank you for your honesty," Jiraiya said. He and Kakashi returned to the window to look in on Kushina. They stared in silence, letting the prognosis sink in.
"What should we do, Jiraiya-sensei?"
The Toad Sage folded his lips and paced. He paused mid-stride and turned back to Kakashi. "I think I may know a way to save her."
Kakashi turned toward him, one eye regarding him with skepticism. "Really?"
"It's a gamble, but something tells me there's a good chance it'll work." Jiraiya formed hand signs and prepared to summon one of his contract-bound toads. "Kakashi, tell the medical team to do everything they can to keep her alive, for as long as they can. I'll be back."
The cavern where Obito had chosen to contain and subdue the Nine-Tailed Fox was wet and cold, but it didn't matter - comfort levels aside, he had done it. Obito's plan to steal the tailed beast from his former sensei's spouse went off without a hitch. Even the arrival of the fabled Legendary Sannin member Jiraiya hadn't managed to stop him. That pesky Yellow Flash had given him a temporary scare, teleporting here and engaging him so soon. That much was for sure, but it was all of no consequence. The small portion of chakra he managed to seal inside of himself before escaping would be easy enough for the fox to recover with some time.
Obito stared up at the towering cave in silence, watching the agitated scowl of the fox as it glared at him from behind a thick barrier of chakra. He smirked behind his mask, amused by the creature's blind hatred for him.
"Is something the matter? Eh, Nine-Tails?" he teased.
"Damn you," cried the fox, its deep voice shaking stalactites free from the ceiling. The fox's captor didn't bother dodging, letting the rocks pass through him. "Damn you and that cursed Sharingan!"
"Temper, temper, fox," Obito chided. "Get used to your current state of subjugation. Even if I can no longer tame you with my Sharingan, I still have plenty of use for you. You'll see. Despite the Hokage's efforts, you've still plenty enough chakra for integration into the Gedo Mazo."
The fox only glowered at him. He responded by casting a paralysis jutsu. Obito's captive growled, twitching as the effects took hold, and then collapsed, unable to resist.
"There we go," Obito said. "I'll be keeping you as my prisoner for a while longer. Get comfortable."
Finding Tsunade Senju had proven to be a hell of an undertaking, but Jiraiya had done it at last. He set one heavy, sandaled foot down on the tiled floor, then the other as he, Tsunade, her assistant Shizune, and Tonton the pig were deposited in the hospital wing next to Kakashi. The latter gasped in surprise.
"Jiraiya-sensei? You made it."
Jiraiya rested a hand on the wall, panting, before smiling up at Fukasaku, nicknamed 'Pa' in honor of his position as the senior patriarchal figure of Mount Myoboku. Jiraiya noted that the hallway was empty apart from Kakashi and a couple of nurses.
"Thanks for bringing us here so fast, Pa," Jiraiya said. "There's no time to waste. Sorry again for having to summon you for this."
"Ah," the aging toad said, waving him off, "Ma and I understand, Jiraiya-boy. Now go. Save Kushina-girl."
Jiraiya nodded. "Right." Pa vanished in a puff of smoke before he could say anything more. Jiraiya smiled, grateful that the toads came through for him at a time like this. He turned to his long-lost teammate. "Tsunade, are you ready?"
The beautiful blonde at his side didn't respond. She stood rooted in place a few paces away, not having moved from the moment she was reverse-summoned here. He almost thought she'd changed her mind, until she turned to stare through the glass partition at the person whose life she was charged to save. Tsunade's almond-brown eyes filled with sorrow and her forehead pinched when she saw the pathetic state of Kushina, the stubborn Uzumaki who clung to life despite what must have been agonizing pain.
Unseen to Tsunade, Jiraiya breathed a sigh of relief. The hospital staff had complied with the instructions he left with Kakashi and done what they could to keep Kushina covered up and spotless. It seemed silly, asking a hospital of all places to hemophobia-proof a section of its Intensive Care Unit. Even so, it was worth the trouble. All it would take for Jiraiya's last resort to fail him was the sight of a single drop of blood.
"I never thought I'd be back here in the village so soon," Tsunade whispered to herself, "and certainly not because of something like this. What did that bastard do to you, Kushina?"
The fellow Sannin took a long, steadying breath. Jiraiya knew what was on her mind, and why she delayed going into the room. Time was of the essence, though. She needed to make a decision, and fast.
"Tsunade," Jiraiya said, his voice heavy with emotion, "I understand if you've changed your mind. You know, you don't have to do this. None of us would blame you." He reached out to touch his best friend on the shoulder. "Or if it would help, I could have Minato call a Yamanaka in to suppress your memori-"
"No," she shot back, shrugging him off, "I do have to do this. I want to."
Tsunade cast aside her signature green jacket, exposing broad, toned shoulders. She stalked down the hall toward the door to the operating room. Jiraiya watched her go with apprehension, remembering 'those two' and the pain their loss caused her. Shizune stood by with Tonton cradled in her arms, swaddled within Tsunade's discarded garment. The blonde kunoichi cast a firm glance back at Jiraiya and Kakashi, the fear in her demeanor long gone.
"Like I said, you can leave this to me. I'll do whatever I can, even if I have to bet my life."
She strode toward the table where Kushina appeared to be in nothing more than a deep slumber. Seeing the woman whose legendary medical skills far outstripped all of theirs combined was enough to send the crew in the operating room scattering in multiple directions. Tsunade used a heel to nudge aside a rolling tray with an array of tools (all spotless, as requested). It hit the far wall with an unceremonious crash. Having made herself room to work, she stepped forward to examine her patient. Tsunade raised both hands, palms joined, and closed her eyes. A familiar distortion of the air around her outstretched palms told Jiraiya that Tsunade was gathering chakra to try and heal Kushina. If there was anyone on the planet capable of such a feat, it was this woman.
Tsunade broke form, the slightest trace of a tremble in her wrists. He sighed as she shook it off and continued with renewed focus. She must have feared that any second now, she would see blood and just like that, lose all will to continue. He feared the same.
"Do you really think she can do it?" Kakashi asked, snapping Jiraiya out of his thoughts.
"I'll say this much. Without a doubt, she has the best chance of any medical ninja." Jiraiya looked at the floor.
Even so, he said to himself, there's a possibility for failure.
"Of course she can!" Shizune cut in. She adjusted her posture to better support the slippery pig resting against her bosom. It squealed out an oink of implied agreement. "Don't doubt Lady Tsunade's abilities."
"Ah," Jiraiya said, "that reminds me. Kakashi, you've never witnessed Lady Tsunade in action before, have you?"
"No sir. I've only heard stories."
"Well, they're all true. You're about to see for yourself how a master medical ninja works." These words were as much to convince himself as they were for Minato's student's sake. Deep down, Jiraiya hoped they wouldn't amount to hollow promises.
An unsettling quiet seized the room as Jiraiya, Kakashi, Shizune, Tonton, and Minato observed the scene unfolding in the operating room. Tsunade hunched over Kushina's still body. She grunted as she concentrated her chakra on the new mother's center mass. Beads of sweat rolled down her arms and face, but she refused to let up.
"Don't die, don't die, don't die…" Tsunade mouthed, her bottom lip curling inward.
Those words cut deep. Jiraiya clenched his fists, knowing Tsunade was channeling the hurt she still hadn't moved past. She wasn't only seeing Kushina. She was seeing her late brother, Nawaki Senju. She was seeing her lost lover, Dan Kato. It killed Jiraiya that he was the one who brought her here. Made her relive her anguish. He was a terrible friend, and an even worse sensei.
Tsunade grunted, forcing out more chakra. The muscles in her arms constricted as she tried to pull Kushina back from the brink of death. The pain of Jiraiya's regrets ate away at him more and more with every dulled sound from the other side of the glass. He reflected on all of the ways he'd failed not only Tsunade, but others he held dear. Maybe with time, Minato and Kushina could forgive him for not being present enough in their lives. Perhaps if he were, this wouldn't have happened.
"Sensei," Minato said, drawing his attention, "this will work. I believe in Lady Tsunade's abilities. Besides, Kushina's too strong to let something like this stop her."
The Fourth squeezed Jiraiya's wrist in a subtle show of affection. There was no question that Minato knew "something like this" - having one's tailed beast removed by force - was more serious than he made it sound. The extraction spelled death for a Jinchuuriki, without exception. Of course, the Uzumaki were known for their resilient spirits, but even they weren't gods. Kushina couldn't survive exhausting her chakra reserves on top of having the Nine Tails removed. Jiraiya suspected hoping for a miracle must have helped his student to cope, rather than staying grounded in reality and succumbing to fear. He didn't blame Minato.
"Yeah," Jiraiya said, letting out a bittersweet chuckle, "she sure is."