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"Bread, soup—these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time."

Elie Wiesel, Night


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Chapter XXIII: Starvation

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Neru flinched slightly from the loud noises and eyed around at the main street, bustling with dancers, jugglers and artists with masks and painted faces. The music only added to the gaiety, which lit up Naruto and Jiraiya's mood. However, the humour vanished from her face as she observed several half-finished cups of tea and plates of food sitting on the tables.

Even now, she still could remember the feeling she had at that time. That time when she barely had anything to eat or anything to drink. It was hard to explain a feeling she barely knew even existed.

How long could those leftovers last? A week? Maybe more?

"Hey! What's that?!" Naruto pointed at a food's cart.

Neru was in the middle of a festival with none other than Uzumaki Naruto to keep her company.

Jiraiya'd claimed that they deserved a break. He was going to gather some information on Tsunade's whereabouts. She seriously doubted his credibility, but she let herself get talked into it anyway. He'd taken Naruto's savings and given them approximately sixty dollars to waste on the festival. The old man had given her a sceptical look when she'd told him that she didn't have any money on her. So she'd lied: she had some attendants and they were usually responsible for her expenses. She may look like she had a lot of money, but it was all the contrary. The village was not financially stable.

"Try this, Naruto-san." She said, trying to hand him a piece of her Taiyaki.

Naruto looked at her face and then back at the food in her hand.

"For me?" He asked, uncertain.

"Yeah."

They had a lot of superficial interactions. It felt like he was not at ease with her yet. Sometimes, he was on the defensive. She didn't know why.

Naruto took the fish-shaped pastry and munched it like it was his last meal. His cheeks bulged like a squirrel's cheeks. He ate it very quickly. So she thought that maybe he had grown up like her. Maybe he didn't know when he would eat next.

"Waaah! It tastes so good!" He said with a pleasing tone.

Crunch! Munch! Munch!

"Slow down a little there … You'll choke…" She sweatdropped.

There was this uneasiness in her stomach, the same uneasiness as though it was her very first day of school. She was anxious. She wanted to make friends. She hadn't felt like this for a very long time.

He tapped his knuckles against his chest as if trying to pass a burp. Naruto suddenly lurched closer and she skittered back. He looked downward. "You are not going to eat that? Give it to me then!"

"No, I'll eat it!" Turning around, she pulled down her mask and take a bite. The sweetness of the red bean paste melt into her mouth and her face brightened up. "Hummm!"

Naruto tried to peek at her face from the left. She quickly turned on her heels to the right. She shoved her food down her throat and quickly swallowed it. She made sure to put back her mask.

"Why do you have a mask like Kakashi-sensei?"

"To hide my face."

His mouth was in an "O" shape and then he stilled for a few seconds. "You are gonna treat me like some sort of idiot? Come on! Why do you hide your real face?!"

Like I have a fake face.

"You know what? How about we try that game? Goldfish scooping sounds fun!" She ducked inside a booth. She kneed down and took a poi, a round plastic frame with paper on it.

"The one with the most fishes wins!" she challenged, baiting his competitive side.

"You are so going to lose, databeyo!"

She dove her poi in the water and when she pulled the scooper out, the paper tore. Her gaze lingered on Naruto's bowl.

It was empty.

She watched him use excessive force until his scooper was bent.

"Man, we suck." Naruto dropped his gaze.

"I really hate to lose."

Neru and Naruto sank into despair. A black cloud loomed over their heads.

"Yeah, me too. That is why we cannot give up now!" He suddenly rose up to his feet, which made her jump a little. "You can't give up on something just because it's not ideal! I am not Uzumaki Naruto if I can't even catch a fish! Let's unite our strength and do … uh..? "

"Teamwork…"

"Yeah! Teamwork!"

She wasn't much of a team player. But if she wanted to befriend him, she should at least make some effort. Naruto straightened up and placed himself at the far end of the rectangular container. He nodded to himself.

"What are you doing?" She asked, lazily.

"Get ready to catch those little beasts!" Naruto grinned with mischief.

"You didn't answer my question."

Out of the blue, he jumped up and down, his feet heavy and loud. His face twisted into an intimidating expression. He flapped his arms as if he was trying to imitate a bird. "Kaah kahh!"

"Whaaaaat the fuuuuck was thaaaat!" She exclaimed with wide eyes. "And you call me crazy?"

"You can't tell?" Naruto frowned, oblivious. "I am trying to imitate a bird!"

You are a total idiot!

"I know!"

She spotted some people turning to look at them. He was making a scene. She wasn't expecting this. How the heck could she?

"Can we do this like normal people do?!"

"Crazy-hime!" Naruto called, pointing down.

Wincing at the nickname, she looked down. All the goldfishes were heading her way. It quickly became clear that he was trying to scare them and gather them together in a corner. Therefore, it maximized their chance of capturing them in one scoop. But the thing was … he didn't have to make those silly faces, thumping on the ground should be enough!

"I know, I know." She declared. "And stop calling me that!"

You are way crazier than me!

She picked up a poi and concentrated. There were a dozen of them swimming, all cramped together. In a swift movement, she was able to scoop up a single goldfish. Naruto and Neru watched it, almost entranced.

It slipped on the wet paper.

A distressed sound escaped her mouth. She bent over to catch it as it slipped on the scooper once again. Then Naruto came to the rescue.

He caught it in both his palms.

The air stilled, save for the sound made by the fish's flapping tail. Naruto and the fish's eye balls grew simultaneously bigger like a mix of a cat and water on a bad day. She didn't have to be a psychic to know what would happen before it happened.

Naruto made a disgusted face. "Ewww! Gross!"

A scream bubbled up in her throat. "Noooo!"

The goldfish fell flat on the ground.

Plop!

She watched it opened its gills like it was desperately trying to prove that it was still alive, but just not doing too well. Should she do something? Her eyes slid to Naruto who was trying to pick it up, but at the last second, he retracted back his hands.

They looked like dumbasses.

"I got this!" She kneeled down and quickly took it off the ground. It was slimy and soft. The sensation was indeed gross. She didn't have time to get used to it as she threw the fish in a bowl of water. It swam hurriedly in circles.

"Phew." She breathed out a sigh of relief.

"Hurray!" Naruto said in a merry voice.

"What-What were we-What was that?!" She said, biting her lips. Naruto busted into laugher and she couldn't hold it any longer. She laughed too. Naruto raised his hand to give her a high-five.

"Ummm…" He looked down to avoid eye contact. She got the impression that he was hesitating again. It was too late for him. She had already returned it.

Clap!

Naruto looked pensively down at his hand. She wondered what was wrong with him. But honestly, how could she know? He was a strange kid to begin with.

"Cough-Cough…"

They were startled and both looked up at the same time. The sight of the owner of the booth was intimidating. He was crossing his arm, looking down at them with a severe expression. She was expecting to be kicked out at any minute now.


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"I can't believe he still gave it to us!" Naruto beamed as he stared obsessively at the plastic bag containing the red goldfish. Even though they'd caught it, she believed the owner could still refuse to give it to them. Their antics were... unusual.

"He pitied us."

"No, he admired our teamwork!" He corrected her with glee. "Hehe!"

She got goosebumps.

They shoved their way through the crowd and walked past the tenth table packed with jewelry and masks. Her eyes lingered on a golden bracelet. She could tell from a single glance that it was not real gold. Though it was still pretty.

As soon as her attention was elsewhere, she lost sight of Naruto. "Uh … Naruto-san?"

She looked right and left.

After twenty minutes of searching, she returned to where she'd lost him. Usually she could spot him from a mile away, because of his flashy jumpsuit, but it was difficult here. Almost everyone was wearing flamboyant and tacky clothes.

Naruto, that kid is giving my anxiety!

She turned and stared again at the bracelet. It winked at her, reflecting the light coming from a Chinese lantern. She approached the display and picked up the jewel. There was not even a single blemish.

She bought it.

Sometimes, she had to treat herself.


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They came for her at dawn.

"Yo! You must be Logan-chan. I am right?"

She nodded, inspecting the two summons closely. "You are…?"

Summoning toads.

"Call me Gamakichi! Jiraiya sent us to find you." The dark orange frog with purple markings around his eyes and mouth said, smirking. He then gestured toward the yellow frog with the same blue vest. "He's Gamatatsu. My brother. Actually, just ignore him."

"Hello! Hello!" The small yellow frog said with a jovial high-pinched voice. "Where are the snacks? I can't wait any longer!"

"I don't have any … snacks."

"He told you that to shut you up!" Gamakichi shook his head.

"Really?" Gamatatsu pouted. "But I'm getting hungry. Oh no, I'm hungry now!"

"You are always hungry, you dummy!"

It was common knowledge that Jiraiya had a pact with toads. She suspected that they were able to recognize her due to Jiraiya's backpack. He had given it to them in case they were lost.

"By the way, I got separate from Naruto. I don't know where he went."

"He's fine." Gamakichi said. "He's training with Jiraiya."

What?

Did Naruto go see Jiraiya without telling her? Maybe they didn't want her there to see his training. After all, she wasn't … She wasn't anything to them.

It's something between those two. If they don't want to share it, that's fine with me.

"We can't exactly go back empty-handed…" Gamatatsu moped.

"No, we are not." His brother frowned. "We got her."

Gamatatsu looked like he was about to cry.

"I don't think he means me." She pulled out the rest of her coins and began to count.

The yellow toad then smiled like nothing had happened. "Oh look, it's a butterfly!"

"I don't really get him…" She said with a puzzled expression.

"You really don't want too." Gamakichi shook his head.

She bought them dangos. Gamatatsu was the cutest thing she had ever seen. Gamakichi acted like a smart aleck, but he was also adorable. She adored them. She threw a pink piece of dango up in the air, and Gamatatsu snatched it with his tongue. He skipped happily, swinging his arms as he hummed a song.

She paused a few times. The lyrics were peculiar.

"Can you hear the froggy song?" Gamatatsu sang.

"Yes, I head the froggy song..." Gamakichi sang along, sluggishly.

She leaned toward the orange frog, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Are you okay?"

"Ribbidy ribbidy! Ribbidy ribbidy!" They sang loudly.

Why did she ever think that Gamakichi was more down to earth than his brother?

"You guys are definitely not combat toads."

"We are!" Gamakichi protested.

"I don't do sports." Gamatatsu nodded happily.

Night had fallen by the time she returned to the inn. The toads gave her a key to her room before they vanished in a cloud of smoke. The charm of this traditional Japanese-style inn was that there was nothing fancy about it. The room had three bedchambers with tatami mats covering the floor and sliding doors. She had to lay out her own futon. She noticed that the windows were not covered. No glass. No anything. So if someone wanted to break in, he would have one less step to bother.

Putting her gun under her pillow, she flopped into the futon. She didn't sleep well that night. She was the only one in that room. Where were Naruto and Jiraiya? She had a lot of fun today, but she had a small pain in her chest. Naruto had ditched her. Anyone would have felt a little hurt, right?

Maybe she was reading too much into things…

"Tch." She rolled on the side, staring out of the window.

After a few minutes, she fell fast asleep.


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Neru woke up at the same hour every morning. The temperature had dropped. She wrapped the blanket tightly around her shoulder as she dragged her cold feet to the bathroom. She went past Jiraiya's room. She could smell alcohol. He was drunk for sure. She could also see some red lipstick marks on his cheeks and neck.

Courtesans?

Was he really gathering some information?

She doubted it. It was definitely for his own pleasure. She didn't know how to think of Jiraiya. She liked his humour, but she hated that he was a pervert. How could she respect someone who spied on naked women? Was that a crime? To view a person without her consent? It was kind of pathetic, but she should keep it all to herself.

The bathroom's door opened and Naruto busted out.

He blinked, his blond hair sticking out in all directions like a dandelion. "Good morning!"

"Good morning…" She repeated, awkwardly.

Naruto wasn't wearing his usual orange jumpsuit. He had a white t-shirt and blue pants. She looked down at herself. She was still wearing the same outfit as yesterday and the day before yesterday. Naruto had packed his things with him before going on this journey whereas she hadn't take anything with her. Twisting her bracelet, she regretted buying this stuff instead of comfortable clothes.

"So…" Naruto didn't seem to notice her nervousness. "What do we do with this?"

He brought up the plastic bag with the goldfish in front of her face.


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Step 1

Her fingers fumbled the knot.

They released the goldfish in a nearby river. None of them were prepared to look out for it. Especially Naruto, the brat couldn't take care of it even if he'd be paid. The goldfish gave them a final glare before it headed out into the rising tide. Naruto childishly stuck out his tongue. "Blehhh!"

She cracked a smile. Was she like that when she was twelve?

Her eyes flickered at the bag he'd taken with him. She could see that there were many waters' balloons in it. It must be for the Rasengan. She'd read about it a very long time ago, so she recalled it very vaguely.

"What is that for?" She asked pointing at the bag.

"Oh, I have to break that water's balloon for a super cool move!" Naruto said, energetically. "A ninjutsu left behind by the Fourth Hokage himself! He perfected it after 3 years!"

"So you ditched me yesterday for that, huh?" She managed to say without sounding too upset.

Naruto's eyes met hers, his expression settling into a frown. "I didn't ditch you because of that… I just thought that you would have more fun without me."

To say the conversation took a strange turn was a bit of an understatement.

"What makes you think that?"

Naruto gave her an uneasy look.

"I have a lot of fun with you, yesterday." She added wisely. "Did I do something to you?"

"No! You didn't do anything to me! Don't you remember?" He asked. "You were there, when those Black Mantle men came to get me. You heard what Sasuke said."

"He said a lot of things…"

"I am the Nine-Tail host." Naruto looked at her straight in the eyes. "Do you still want to hang out with me?"

At first, she was very wary of Naruto. She was more careful with him than with everyone else for who he was. She didn't have anything against him or anything against the Nine-Tail fox. There was a difference between bad people and people who had done something bad. The bijuu was the latter. Kind of. If he was a human. Plus for all she knew, it was an Uchiha that had controlled the bijuu to destroy Konoha.

"I don't care about that." She shrugged, her voice firm. "I won't even care if you are not human … You have it bad, huh?"

To push her away like that… What was he afraid of? To be rejected?

"It's just that … everyone that knows about that demon fox don't want to be near me!" The bitter edge of his voice was noticeable. "Except for Iruka-sensei and the old man and—!"

"See?" She interrupted. "There are people that accept you for who you are. Good for you. Like I said earlier, I don't care. You seem like a nice guy. You won't hurt me, will you?"

"Of course not! I won't do anything like that!"

"Exactly! You are harmless to me."

"Hey! Knock it off!" Naruto edged closer, his voice rising in hope. "I'm a shinobi, you know?! I will become the strongest! My dream is to be the next Hokage, so everyone will acknowledge me, databeyo!"

A warm breeze swept through the forest.

He looked tremendously pleased with himself.

She should have told him what he wanted to hear if she wanted to become closer to him. Something like "You'll make it" or "I believe in you". But she just stayed quiet. She did not know him enough to believe that he would be the right choice. She did not want to be delusional and accepted him just because he was the Hero. What did he think about killing? What were his beliefs?

There were a lot of little boys or girls that just wanted that title for their selfishness. They wanted to prove that they were the strongest. They wanted recognition. Naruto wasn't any different from them. Being the Hokage was never about him.

"That was super uncool." Naruto scratched behind his head. "I think I understand why Sasuke is friends with you."

"Our friendship is more one-sided."

"Same here. I don't even know if we are friends. We barely stand each other."

The kid with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky grinned, baring his teeth. She shot him an even stare. She wanted to know more about him, but that was for another time.

"I think we better start training." She said.

"Yeah! It's time for training!" Naruto agreed with glee.

Naruto had made up his mind to master the first step of the Rasengan in three days. He succeeded the next morning before the third day was over.


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Step 2

"Can you help me with my training … just a bit—?" Naruto asked.

"I don't have that kind of time…" Jiraiya cut in, his voice severe. "Unless you think on your own and find the key on your own, you'll never get it right no matter how long you take."

"You are too harsh, Jiraiya-sama" She said. "You are asking him to do something the Fourth has taken years to master. He will learn it faster if you give him a hint."

Did you ever ask for a teacher's help, but the only thing you got was: figure it out on your own? Why would Naruto ask for his help in the first place? He had no idea how to do better.

"You have been fed with a silver spoon your whole life. You don't always get what you want with me! Naruto has to do this on his own!"

She was at a loss for words.

Assume whatever you want. It shouldn't bother me that much.

Jiraiya turned to scowl at Naruto who was kind of startled. "Naruto, a shinobi shouldn't tell everyone about his moves, no matter how cool it is!"

"Come on! She just wanted to know!" Naruto complained.

Jiraiya signed. "Go down the town and buy lunch for the three of us."

"What?!" Naruto exclaimed. "But—"

"No buts, remember you are learning a jutsu from me."


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"Damn it! He doesn't teach me anything! He only acts like a teacher in times like this!" Naruto said, letting a note of complaint slip into his voice. He puffed his chest and lowed his voice to impersonate Jiraiya. "Unless you think on your own and find the key on your own, you'll never get it right no matter how long you take. Yah-de-yah-de-yah!"

"Looks like you kinda have a useless teacher."

"Damn right!"

They were waiting in line in front of a wooden food cart. It was almost their turn. She stared forward, looking between the customer's shoulders. There were many sorts of steamed buns. What should she get? Jiraiya'd given them more money. So how much money should she keep for buying herself new clothes?

"What will be your order?" The seller asked.

"Three roast pork steamed buns, please." She ordered. "Is that fine with you, Naruto-san?" She got no response. "Naruto-san?"

She turned around. Naruto was paying attention to a pair of father and son. He was staring at them blandly like he was in a stance. What so interesting about them?

"Three roast pork steamed buns? Is that all?" The vendor asked.

"Yes." She said quickly.

"That will be 580 yens."

"Oww, I can eat it all by myself." The little boy said. The father broke the ice cream in two. He kept one for himself and gave the other to his son. "No, you can't! Mom made lunch and she's waiting for us to come back."

A chilly breeze swept through the streets. Naruto's face was growing stormy.

She knew that look, it was a look full of envy. He caught her glance and she forced an eye-smile, lifting the bag of food."Got them!"


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Neru closed her eyes, putting her head in her hands. Like yesterday, her fire jutsu, the one with the white flame, didn't last very long. She suspected that the cause was related to her chakra's reserve that was less than average. She shot Naruto an envious look. The guy had a reserve a hundred times greater than hers.

He's a power house.

Naruto was now holding the rubber ball and charging it. It exploded "Guhhhhhh!"

"Arggg owwwww!"

She wasn't going to lose to him. She wanted to become stronger than Naruto.

As if! But I have to try!

Her hand started to burn with the white flame.

"Calm down, kiddo!" she heard a booming voice that jerked out of her thoughts. Jiraiya was standing by a tree about ten feet away. She lifted her dark brows in surprise.

"I can pick up your killing intent from far away!" Jiraiya said.

"Yeah!" Naruto said, looking incredulous at her. "That was scary!"

"What I am supposed to do then? This jutsu depends on it."

The only time she could turn her normal flame into the white flame was when she was extremely mad, when she was thinking about her. Damn it, she was in desperate need of therapy.

"Where did you read that?"

"I didn't read it anywhere." She said. "I created this."

"You created…" Jiraiya's mouth was in a thin line. "You mean you created this jutsu on your own?"

"Yes, that's what I just said."

It was hard to escape Jiraiya's measured gaze. She willed herself to pay him no heed.

"You are wasting your chakra, you know." Jiraiya had a stare that could make the most hardened adult feel ashamed. The people she'd lived with had unrealistic expectations of her. She had become blasé about it. "Okay….So how do I avoid that?"

"Oh well, you can figure that out on your own too."

"That's so useful."

Jiraiya ignored her sarcasm. "I'll give you a hint. Do it from the heart. Be your true self."

"Pervy sage, you are full of crap!" Naruto couldn't help, but said from across the field.

"That's the lamest thing I have ever heard." She added. "Is that a line from your book?"

"Good grief! Kids those days can't take a joke?!"

"All joking aside, what should I do? I don't want to waste chakra." She asked. "Come on, Jiraiya-sama! Please share with me a little of your wisdom!"

She didn't care if she looked shameless. She had to become stronger. She must.

"Well … it looks like Naruto has at least improved a little bit and I can't refuse a desperate plea from a fan of mine." Jiraiya hummed. She had forgotten about that. Geez. "The two of you have the same problem, so I might as well share my humble advice."

Naruto and Neru exchanged a look.

Smug hard-ass.

"Once you've gotten this far, the rest is just a simple trick… Let's try it out!" Jiraiya took Naruto's dominant hand and draw a dot in the center of his palm. He did the same to her. Her body stiffened.

"What the heck?" Naruto stared down at his hand.

He then pulled out a blank paper. "Naruto, Logan-chan, look at this piece of paper."

She stared blankly.

"Okay, I saw, I looked…" Naruto said.

"Alright! Okay now look again!" Jiraiya show them the same piece of paper with a black dot.

"So what?" Naruto frowned. Jiraiya met her eyes, staring at her closely, maybe too closely, as though he was expecting something from her.

She tilted her head. "I can't see shit. Shit! Did I just say that out loud?"

She had been careful to not curse in front of Jiraiya.

"I don't give two shits about cursing, lady." Jiraiya smirked.

"Good," She said. "Everyone does."

"Can we return to the subject?" Naruto asked. "Cause the suspense is killing me!"

Jiraiya laughed. "It's not that complicated, but when I used the blank paper … You looked at it as a whole, right?"

"I guess…" Naruto mused.

"But how did you look at the paper with the dot? You stared at the center, right?"

"Yeah! Yeah!" Naruto said with excitation. "Then? What's the hint?"

"Concentration." She immediately said. That was what she always did. Concentrate. It wasn't a new concept for her. That was the key to her sharingan too. So … if she wanted to save up her chakra, she had to concentrate? What?

"Right!" Jiraiya nodded in agreement.

"Concentration?" Naruto repeated, confused at the whole concept.

"When the paper is blank, your gaze is unstable as there is no clear target." Jiraiya explained. "However, if there is a dot … the target becomes clear and your eyes unconsciously follow it. This is called concentration-of-one … You come closer to a state where you can draw your maximum power because of your mind is calm."

Naruto still looked very confused.

The kid is slow … Well, he's just twelve.

"Anyways, just concentrate. Naruto, aren't ya the type that got yelled at in the Academy for lack of concentration?" He teased.

Naruto looked guiltily surprised. "Do I really look like that?!"

She was beginning to get it.

"If I am able to generate chakra at the center of my palm, I will only use the necessary." She stared down at her hand. It was harder to generate chakra at the center of her palm, because she had to have a perfect chakra's control and precision. Usually, all her hand was infused with chakra. "To create a flame, I only need a tiny spark and it will take on a life of its own."

"You are a fast learner." Jiraiya remarked. "Naruto, on the other hand…"

"You can't say that so soon." She defended the boy. "He might master that jutsu before me and … he shows a lot of promise, don't you agree?"

Jiraiya laughed. "He's my apprentice. I know that more than you do."

Naruto wasn't even listening to them.

He had already started to test out Jiraiya's trick.

Two days passed, and she was bedridden. She'd pushed herself too hard and had to rest like any normal person contrary to Naruto. Due to the Nine-Tail, Naruto could recover entirely from any injury after a night of sleep. She had seen his burned skin and all his bruises healed in a minute.

Naruto completed the second step before she was ready to get out of bed.


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Step 3

They headed out to another town. There were rumours about Tsunade, so Jiraiya took them to weird places. They went into a dark alley that stretched before them and lined with crates of garbage. Jiraiya navigated through the maze of alleys with ease.

He has done this before.

They entered a gambling den. An illegal gambling den…

"Oh I know her!" The gambler said. "She did win back the money she lost here and said she'd go there!"

"There? Where?" Jiraiya asked, still holding Tsunade's picture in one hand.

She had a quick look at the picture.

The woman was young and beautiful. Her blond hair was gathered into a loose ponytail.

They went somewhere else again. This time, they were searching for Tsunade at a casino. She saw Naruto insert a single coin and won the jackpot.

"Woa!" She exclaimed, looking at the coins falling down the machines. "The chances are one in a million!"

"Hehehe! Pervy sage used all my savings! Now I have it all back!" Naruto laughed, hugging his frog wallet. "~~You are cuter when you are full!"

Lucky!

"Where are we going now?" She asked Jiraiya.

"It can't be helped….We'll search from a high place…" Jiraiya mused. "The highest place here is that castle."


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"What happened here?" Naruto frowned.

The castle was destroyed in a million pieces.

"Hey!" A man shouted to get their attention. They looked down. "You over there!"

"What happened here?" Jiraiya asked.

"You guys should run away too! There's a demon beast up there!"

"The demon beast, you speak of … What exactly was it?" Jiraiya continued.

"A hu-huge snake!" The man exclaimed in horror. "Toppled the building instantly!"

Her eyes narrowed. There were not a lot of summoning snakes that were big enough to smash that enormous castle. She wouldn't be happy to meet Orochimaru so soon, neither was Jiraiya.

Jiraiya's eyes darkened.


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They searched for Tsunade the entire afternoon. They asked around the town, but to no avail…

At this rate, it will become dark soon…

"Why would we ask the bartender?" Naruto said. "He wouldn't know about her."

"Dumbass." Jiraiya shook his head. "Information is always found at places like this."

She ignored them and went in the bar. To her surprise, the woman they were searching for weeks was just drinking many bottles of sakes there with another black-haired woman and a … pig.

"Hey!" Jiraiya jumped in surprise. "Tsunade!"

"Jiraiya…" The beauty looked up with a frown. "Why … are you at a place like this?"

She looked like she was in her twenties at most. Fifty years old? No way. Tsunade was stunning. Soft brown eyes and blond hair tied in two loose ponytails. Her grey kimono-style blouse was cut low across her breasts. Contrary to Jiraiya, she could tell from a single glance that this woman was powerful, extremely powerful.

The black-haired woman was Shizune, Tsunade's apprentice. She was a fair-skinned woman with straight hair that reached her shoulders. Her eyes were sharp and clear, and focused on their every movement as they approached the table. She was holding a light pinkish pig in her arms. The pet was wearing a pearl collar and a red jacket.

"Finally, we've found you." Jiraiya smiled, a slow lazy smile.

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They were seating across the table from Tsunade and Shizune. Naruto was in the middle, separating Jiraiya and Neru. She poked the food they'd ordered with her chopsticks. She was disappointed that she couldn't eat it in front of them without showing her face. She glanced enviously at Naruto who was eating like a glutton. When Jiraiya revealed that they were here for a request to take Tsunade back to Konoha as the 5th Hokage, Naruto choked on his food. She took great satisfaction at seeing him unable to eat anymore. If she couldn't eat anything, he shouldn't either.

"Hey!" Naruto slammed his fist on the table. "How come she gets to be the Hokage?! Why?!"

Naruto, it's not like you are a potential candidate.

"Quiet kid!" Jiraiya snapped. "So your answer is? Are you willing to accept?"

With some hesitation, Tsunade stammered out her answer.

"Impossible … I decline."

This was none of her business.

The fun part about all this was that she had a front seat and a backstage pass to all of this pure joy.

"You just wanted her to come back to the village, so she could check on Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei health, right?" Naruto shouted, his voice severe. "Yet, you asked her to be Hokage? And she declined!"

Naruto was too worked up.

The woman can do both, you know?

"Don't worry too much … This person right here … Tsunade … is the only person who can become the 5th Hokage … She was the one that brought us victory in the great battle … no one has been able to acquire her techniques..." Jiraiya said.

Tsunade was the one who had put in place a program that forced every team to have a medic. It saved a lot of lives, Neru'd heard. Up until now, she was convinced of her potential as the new leader of the Leaf.

"Also Tsunade is the granddaughter of the 1st generation Hokage. So she is the most appropriate person for the position."

That last part sounded just wrong.

Now that she thought about it, Konoha only had Hokages that were blood-related to each other or were in their small circle. The Second was the First's own brother. The Third was the Second's pupil. The Fourth was Jiraiya's student, and Jiraiya was the Third's student.

Kind of messed up. That's why Fugaku never has any chance of becoming Hokage.

Naruto's chances were very high for he was the son of the Fourth.

This looked like an episode of a family drama. She didn't want take any part in it.

"If she becomes the Hokage, she would have to go back to the village and then she could check up those two." Jiraiya continued with a smirk. "This was a decision made by the top members of the Leaf … You have absolutely no say in this matter."

Naruto made a face as if he'd eaten something sour.

"Jiraiya, this kid seems worse than your previous apprentice … in terms of looks, speech and intelligence." Tsunade said.

Neru's eyes flicked between Naruto and Tsunade, her expression settling into a frown. She's mean. To insult him and compare him to his own father, how childish can she get? I don't care if you are mad at Naruto. You are the adult here. Act like one.

Should I say something?

"What's that supposed to mean?!" Naruto said, offended.

Well, too late for that.

"Well, it's tough for anyone to be compared to the 4th…" Jiraiya laughed it off. "Because he really had the talent to become a top-rated ninja. He was smart, reliable and handsome like me too!"

"But even that …4th died quickly." Tsunade grumbled, making Naruto and Jiraiya tensed up. "He gave up his life for his village. His life is different from money. It can't be risked that easily … whoever puts it at risk so easily is a fool!"

Naruto gritted his teeth. She probed his knee when he was fuming. "You shouldn't get too worked up for this." She muttered quietly to him. He stayed silent.

"My grandfather and the 2th both focused too much on bringing peace to our home, more than anything else … but as a result they just died in the middle of their dreams, like losers." Tsunade was throwing fucking shades, more shades than a solar eclipse.

"You've changed Tsunade…" Jiraiya said, unaffected. "I don't know what you've been thinking all this time, but you've just said all that is on your mind…"

"Well, I'm already in my 50s … Age changes people … It's the same for Sarutobi-san … no wonder he died because he was too old to live his dreams."

Neru thought that Tsunade was going too far now.

Jiraiya shoot her a look of pure venom.

"Being Hokage is shit ... no one but a fool would do it!"

Naruto's temper flared and he rose to his feet, ready to hit Tsunade. He jumped on the table, knocking the plates on the floor. Neru stared at the wasted food down on the dirty floor.

I could have … eaten it.

"Wahhhhh!" Naruto shouted in displeasure. "Let me go!"

Jiraiya was holding him back. "Don't you realize we're at a bar?"

People were staring at them.

"Tsunade…" Shizune said with worry.

"I can't forgive anyone that says bad things about our Hokage and the 4th!" Naruto pumped his fists together. "I don't care even if she is a woman! I'm going to beat her up!"

Neru's face darkened, still looking downward. Her hands trembled.

"You've got some guts to say such things to me, boy… Let's take this outside." Tsunade leaned toward Naruto. Their faces were very close.

"Both of you…" Neru suddenly spoke up for the first time. "…Are terribly childish."

She looked up, staring straight in their eyes. They didn't move any inch.

"Who's childish?!" Naruto denied.

"Oh so you can talk! Why were you quiet for so long?" Tsunade said, leaning aggressively toward her. "I thought you were mute."

"Because then you won't like what I am about to say."

Now this was clearly her business.

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