The collapsed castle had been abandoned for a while when Naruto and Jiraiya approached it.
"She can't have gotten far," the old man insisted confidently, having examined the area for signs that Naruto had not seen.
"How can you tell?" Naruto asked, curious about how it was possible to figure this out. Ranma was also curious, because he could only tell which general direction the people who were there had gone.
"There are four sets of footprints that haven't been covered in dust or worn down by the elements," Jiraiya announced, pointing at what looked like a bare patch of ground from where Naruto was standing. Ranma had also made note of these, but didn't get as much out of it as Jiraiya apparently did. "That means she's been here within a day – that, and I heard some villagers complaining about how the castle collapsed this morning when we cleared the last wall."
"Cheater!" accused Naruto vehemently. "Trying to sound cool …"
"No time for this," interrupted Jiraiya importantly. "We need to look for our next Hokage!"
When evening came and no clues had been gathered about the woman's whereabouts apart from still being in the city, Jiraiya admitted defeat for the day and pulled Naruto into a tavern to eat.
"And when we're done, I'm off to do some research!" the Toad Sannin declared lecherously.
"You're not getting Gamma-chan!" the blonde boy growled, remembering the last and only time he had left his money in the man's care. On Ranma's insistence, he calmed down. "I'm not buying your excuses, spend your own money."
"I don't know what you mean," sniffed Jiraiya in insult. "I'm only interested in the welfare of my student and the completion of our mission."
"Your 'research' has nothing to do with our mission," argued Naruto.
"Of course it d- well, well … it's not that big a world, after all," Jiraiya started and stared grinning at a corner of the tavern. "Tsunade!"
Naruto looked in the direction of his current mentor's attention, and saw two women and a pig, the blonde, busty woman who slammed her forehead into the table as soon as Jiraiya called. Apparently she wasn't thrilled to hear from him – much like every other woman who had heard of him, his hobbies and his work.
Without an invitation, Jiraiya plopped himself into the seat across from the buxom blonde lady, and called out an order to the waitress for his and Naruto's meal – a serving that would require no less than four waitresses carrying three bowls each.
"What do you want, Jiraiya?" growled the woman, lifting her head so Naruto saw her face … as well as her massive cleavage. There was something wrong about her – and it all centred around the diamond tattoo on her forehead. This woman was supposed to be Jiraiya's age? She hardly looked a day over thirty!
'She must be using an illusion to hide her age,' Ranma concluded. 'Though it is masterfully done. There's hardly any trace of chakra being drawn, yet there is a very large supply stored in that tattoo. This goes far beyond any illusion technique we've ever seen … it's almost more like she transformed into a younger body!'
'Wouldn't that jutsu wear off when she falls asleep?' Naruto questioned.
'Who said it doesn't?' Ranma countered. 'But I'm sure there are ways of maintaining a jutsu through lost concentration.'
"An old friend can't stop by to say hello?" Jiraiya asked in mock aghast. "You hurt me so, my lovely!"
"Not as much as if I hit you for stalling," threatened Tsunade. Once more, Naruto wondered how the old man could have chosen someone like that as his replacement. "What – do – you – want?"
"I'm here to bring you back to Konoha," the white-haired man confessed seriously, all trace of humour vanishing from his face.
"I swore I wouldn't return," Tsunade countered snappishly. "Not after what happened."
"You've been selected to be our Godaime, Konoha needs you," persisted Jiraiya.
"The Council must really have been desperate to send you," growled Tsunade, gripping the table hard enough to leave indentations of her fingers.
"We weren't sent by the Council," argued Jiraiya. "They might even be unaware of our mission. No, it was Sensei who sent us – he had faith in that you would be the best candidate to fill his shoes now that he is unable to carry out his duties."
"Sensei?" gasped Tsunade, wide-eyed with emotion. She regained her composure, even if her assistant or companion didn't. "I was given the impression that he had died at Orochimaru's hands … when he still had them …"
"So he found you as well," muttered Jiraiya. "What did he tell you?"
"Konoha is at war with Sand and Sound," summarised the elder of the two women. "He fought with Sensei and killed him at the price of his hands."
"Wounded," corrected Jiraiya. "Orochimaru got his arms burnt off as he tried to kill sensei, thanks to quickly arriving medi-nin and over a full day of surgery, sensei survived but he can't serve in his duties – so he sent us to get the best candidate for his replacement. You."
"You're dumber than I thought if you believe I'll take the job," deadpanned Tsunade.
"If you won't take the job, then at least see what you can do for Sensei's injuries," ventured Jiraiya. "If you can heal him, then we won't need a replacement after all …"
"What did the traitor want, anyway?" voiced Naruto. "He had to have some reason to find you."
"None of your business, kid," countered Tsunade, and gulped down the rest of her sake bottle – signalling to the bar maid that she needed another. "And I said that I won't come back to Konoha."
"Coward!" Naruto snapped, standing and leaning on the table, glaring at the elder woman. "Whatever happened in the past doesn't make up for leaving the old man hurt when you could have helped! If I didn't know any better, I'd bet you were helping Orochimaru and don't want to risk getting caught!"
"You don't know what you're talking about," returned Tsunade calmly, and accepted the bottle.
"He wanted you to fix his arms," Jiraiya deduced. "But it's impossible to fix something that isn't there …"
"So he brought a few donors with him," Naruto realised … with some help from Ranma.
'We need to work on your deductive reasoning,' Ranma announced inside the blonde boy's head.
"Nasty," Naruto added. "Wearing someone else's arms … ew."
"If you find that concept so disgusting, you haven't got what it takes to be a ninja," announced Tsunade, gulping down the content of her bottle and gaining a noticeable flushed face from inebriation. "Quit before you're killed."
'Oh, she's goin' down!' Naruto decided – and not argued by Ranma.
'Be careful, though – she's considered the best choice for the position of Hokage for a reason,' was Ranma's only comment.
In less than a second, Naruto was halfway across the table to give the woman a black eye for her observation, but was held back by Jiraiya from getting all the way over. It was noticeable that he wasn't putting up much of a fight to get free of the old man's grip.
"And having a temper won't help keep you alive," added the woman coolly.
"That's it! We're takin' this outside, now!" Naruto declared. He had improved a lot in the last month or so, and he didn't like people under estimating him.
"Your apprentice seems to have a death wish," Tsunade commented to Jiraiya.
"No, but he's fond of the Hokage and aspires to become Hokage one day," the man returned. "Since you insulted him, and Sarutobi and his title he feels the need to act out … he's still maturing into his job."
"He needs to learn not to challenge everyone he sees to gratify his ego," stated Tsunade. "I accept your challenge, boy, let's take this outside."
Jiraiya let go of Naruto with a sigh – the woman with Tsunade looked like she was about to faint in outraged shock at the sudden turn of events. Naruto couldn't remember having seen eyes that wide since the last prank he pulled on Konoha … ah, the good old days …
Outside, Tsunade stood waiting confidently.
"Let's get this on!" Naruto declared and got into a ready stance.
"Rules first," Tsunade interrupted. "You get to use everything you can think of, I can defeat you with a single finger."
"What?" demanded Naruto, highly offended with how much he was being underestimated.
"In return, when you lose, I'll get this cute little wallet of yours, and its content," continued Tsunade smugly, holding up Gamma-chan, who had started bulging again.
"Monster!" exclaimed Naruto hotly. "Gimme back my wallet!"
"Should you win, however, I'll give you this," at this, she pulled out a necklace from her considerable cleavage. "It's worth enough to buy several mountains."
"Why does everything boil down to bets?" groaned Naruto, and focused on the task at hand. "Okay, you got a bet!"
"Any time you're ready," the woman announced, holding up her right hand and extending her index finger to show she was ready.
On the sidelines, Jiraiya was holding a bottle of beer, and seemed to enjoy the starting show, while Tsunade's travelling companion and pet seemed to worry about what kinds of damage the woman would inflict on the unfortunate youth.
Had Naruto not been influenced by Ranma for over a month, he would undoubtedly have rushed into this fight without a care other than dishing out some pain – but with Ranma's help, he analysed the situation a great deal more carefully.
'Okay, she's watching our every move,' Naruto deduced after a quick observation. He then went a little deeper in his scrutiny using the techniques Ranma had just started teaching him. 'She is curious and gathering chakra into her muscles for quick reaction time, speed and strength.'
'She's also starting to get impatient and might start calling us cowards if we don't act soon,' added Ranma, proud that Naruto was reading the woman accurately enough to get those things.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Naruto cried, foregoing the normal hand seals in favour of drawing kunai from his pouch, an action that visibly surprised Tsunade, as very few shinobi are able to perform jutsu without the use of hand seals, or even half seals or pre-made seals – least of all something as advanced as the Shadow Clones.
Naruto clones rushed at Tsunade in half a dozen, while the real one was hidden by their advance.
It was laughable how simple the woman made the disposal of those clones look – a slight pivot on her foot here, a poke there and within seconds, there were no more clones.
Tsunade scanned her surroundings quickly, and ducked and wove gracefully between the onslaughts of shuriken that shot at her from every direction. The pendulum effect of her blonde pigtails was an awesome sight – but Naruto honestly thought that the same effect acting a little lower in front was even more fascinating, as he sent another rush of clones at her.
With slightly less ease, Tsunade disposed of the clones that now rushed her from all directions rather from one direction. She still made it look pitifully simple despite the team work and skills the clones exhibited.
"Is that your only trick?" called the woman. "Sending clones to do your dirty work?"
"No," Naruto answered behind her, causing her to swivel on one heel and duck out of the way of a swirling blue ball of chakra held by Naruto, who had appeared out of nowhere.
Recognition flashed across her face upon seeing the jutsu, and rather than getting close to the ball, she grabbed Naruto's forearm and propelled him onwards, making the ball touch the ground.
A moment later, in a great puff of dust a tunnel had been dug into the street, going over a hundred metres down a thirty degree slope, tall and wide enough for a man riding a horse to get through comfortably.
Clearly, he had improved since first learning the technique, now mastering the cylindrical blast as well as the conical one.
At least the village now had the beginnings of a walk-in well.
"Kuso!" Naruto cussed angrily, and jumped to his feet where in his hands two more balls formed.
"Stop!" Tsunade commanded before Naruto could take another step. "Where did you learn that jutsu?"
"The old pervert taught me," snapped Naruto, holding the Rasengan away from his body to avoid accidentally injuring himself. "So what?"
"You taught a newbie one of the most destructive jutsu known to man?" demanded Tsunade of Jiraiya.
"So?" Jiraiya shrugged. "He isn't completely stupid – he beat a Hyuuga in the Chuunin Selection Exams, using an improvised version of their secret techniques. He can handle it."
"How long have you known him?" continued Tsunade, ignoring Naruto, who was still standing there with a pair of Rasengan in his hands.
"About a month …" Jiraiya estimated.
"And what made you decide in the span of a month that he was able to handle the responsibility of having such an awesome jutsu at his disposal?" she demanded hotly.
"I decided based on his training gusto and … tenant …" he hinted.
"Oh … that's him?"
"This is Naruto, yes," confirmed Jiraiya.
"Hey! Stop talking about me like I'm not here, and let's finish this thing!" demanded Naruto hotly.
"You won," Tsunade dismissed.
"I used more than one finger to stop you," the woman explained. "I broke the previously agreed-upon rules and automatically forfeited the match."
Tsunade pulled the necklace from her cleavage and handed it to Naruto.
"Keep it safe," she added as she fastened the thing around his neck. "It belonged to my grandfather, the Shodaime Hokage."
"Huh?" Naruto intelligently questioned. "Hey, wait – I can't take this!"
"Of course you can," insisted Tsunade. "You won the bet. It's yours."
'That's not what I meant,' grumbled Naruto.
'Keep gender bias to yourself,'
Ranma cautioned. 'Besides, I think it's a peace offering of sorts for offending us.'
Back inside the tavern, Naruto was reunited with his wallet, and barely managed to hide it in stuff space, a trick Ranma had put in the time to teach him, before Jiraiya started preaching about keeping it safe for him.
"Youth like you wouldn't know how to responsibly handle his money!"
"I'm more responsible than you!" Naruto countered, and slurped down the ramen that had been delivered to their table. It wasn't nearly as good as Ichiraku's, but still edible. "Besides, I hardly use my money, while you spent the money you held for me on your so-called research. I think that shows which of us the careful one is."
"Bested by a child, Jiraiya?" teased Tsunade smugly. "Things certainly haven't changed much over the years."
"You didn't fare better against him, and I'll have you know that research helped locate you, and will probably add another chapter to my next book …" sniffed Jiraiya proudly.
"Does that make me an investor in your book series?" Naruto asked, wincing at the realisation of what certain people might do to him if this ever came out.
"In theory," mused Tsunade. "But you never signed or made any form of contract, and your money was used without your consent – or that of your legal guardian, so officially I guess it could be called theft."
"I prefer to call it tuition for all the things I'm teaching him," corrected Jiraiya.
"I learned more on my own than I did from you!" Naruto accused.
"I taught you Kuchiose, I taught you Rasengan, and I helped with your training for the Exam …"
"I learned the Kage Bunshin on my own," argued Naruto. "And unlike you, I earned the respect of Gammabunta!"
"Let's not forget that you copied the Kaiten crudely after only having seen it once, and you also refuse to follow my suggestion for making you stronger …"
"Excuse me?" interrupted Tsunade. "Why don't you want to follow Jiraiya's advice for getting stronger – unless it's based on peeping on women …"
"It's not!" Jiraiya immediately exclaimed.
"I don't want to rely on it for strength," Naruto interjected before more speculation could be done. "It's evil, and though I've lived with it all my life, continued exposure to that chakra without having it filtered through me first would corrupt me and increase my chances of an early death or possession."
"Interesting and perceptive observation," Tsunade commented.
"I'm not as stupid as most of my classmates believed," boasted Naruto proudly.
"How about another bet?"
"Why bets?" groaned Naruto, slamming his face into the table, upsetting the tower of empty ramen bowls, threatening to teeter over and break. "Why can't people just do or don't?"
"You'll like this," Tsunade dismissed. "If you win, I'll come with you back to Konoha to see what I can do for Sarutobi-sensei – but if I win, you'll not only leave me alone forever, but also prevent Jiraiya from peeping as long as you're in his company."
"That's unfair! Do you have any idea how much work that would be?"
"Giving up before hearing what the challenge is?" mocked Tsunade. "And I thought you had a pair …"
"I GOT A PAIR!" roared Naruto. "I'll beat your challenge, easy!"
"Good," agreed Tsunade. "What you have to do, is to become as strong as I am. You have a month."
"A month?" shrieked the blonde boy, shaking quite a few glasses nearby. "I'll do it in a week! You've got a bet!"
"Brat, do you know how strong she is?" interjected Jiraiya. "She's one of the only ones capable of opening the Great Gates of Konoha without help! She probably hardly used any strength in crushing that castle! And I'm pretty sure she could lift Gammabunta over her head if she had a good grip!"
"Sounds about right," agreed Tsunade casually. "And you have a week to get that strong. Good luck keeping a watch over my perverted team mate for the rest of your life."
"Crap," Naruto stated, neatly summarising his situation.
Author's Notes: I once again apologise for the delay, but I've become more active in my job search lately, as well as participating in classes on how to find and apply for jobs – seeing as my solo efforts are so ineffective. As for the length of the chapter, it is as long as I can currently make it.