Volume 1 – Rise of the Toad Sage

Prologue

It was a dark and cloudy day during the morning recess at the Ninja Academy playground. Soft showers sprinkled on the fine dust which laid there most of the previous summer, turning it into a sticky brown paste. Feet, small but strong, trampled ringlets of mud and transplanted it wherever they went; it was a big mess. The students were glad to be out of class during this recess. The mid-autumn weather so far had been wet and cold, so they hadn't been able to spend a lot of time to outdoors, unless they wanted to get muddy. They smiled and exhaled little clouds of vapor as they chatted amongst themselves. Some shivered and rubbed their arms and talked. Others were more active; they leapt, ducked, and blocked hits.

Outside the lines of blurred chalk where the children played, the Sensei watched. He wore a plain gray uniform which was stiff-collared and pressed. It was a throwback to the early Ninja Wars which he had been a part of. Now, after having suffered some injuries, he decided to retire and take on the role of teacher. The students knew him as Jukei-sensei. His family and close friends knew him as Akemi. He looked up in the sky after having a few cold raindrops pelt him. He thought ruefully, 'The rain is getting worse.' He checked his watch and the state of the children on the playground. He decided it was time to bring the kids in and continue their lessons. He put his whistle in his mouth and blew it two times. He yelled, "Everyone, get inside!"

Students lined up and began entering the building. The sky, angry with black clouds, seemed to agree with Akemi wholeheartedly. Thunder crashed just over the Hokage mansion loudly as if to punctuate the thought, startling some of the students. The rain swelled and came down harder, bouncing off the ceramic tiles on the roofs with a roar. Akemi was soaked in seconds, much to his chagrin. He ushered the remaining children into the classroom, doing a mental count as they passed by. When he was done, he figured he was two short. 'Damn. It looks like they have wandered off again,' he thought. He allowed his chakra energy to flow to his mind. With his eyes closed, he could see a layout of the land in the form of energies instead of visible light. With a sweep of the area, two forms stood out. 'There they are,' he thought. He threw his hood up over his head and walked in the direction of the energy patterns.

In an alleyway between buildings, the two missing teenage boys were talking to one another. One was a black haired boy with pale skin. His name was Orochimaru, and the other boy was trying to impress him. Rain gushed out of gutter spouts nearby.

Orochimaru wiped rain water from his eyes and snorted derisively, "I'm not interested, Jiraiya. The teacher called us in. Let's go!"

"Hold on! This technique is really amazing, Oro-chan." The white haired boy said confidently.

Orochimaru hated Jiraiya. He bragged too much and treated everyone as though they were close. He didn't understand the normal boundary of acquaintanceship, or friendship for that matter. He began to question why he even followed Jiraiya to the alley in the first place. Maybe it was curiosity, or boredom. Right now, he was just irritated that all Jiraiya wanted to do is show off more of his inane jutsu. To cut the boy off quickly, Orochimaru decided to remind him of his true feelings, "I'm not your friend, Monogatari-san," He said venomously, casting his steely gaze at the other kid, " nor will I ever be, so stop using 'chan' with my name."

Akemi arrived and yelled, "Orochimaru, Monogatari-san! Get inside now."

The two boys nearly jumped out of their skins. 'Amazing. I didn't even hear him coming,' Orochimaru thought. Akemi led them in and walked to the podium. Lessons always began with lectures in the class. Sometimes the kids enjoyed the lectures, and other times, the material was so boring that they fell asleep. That particular day was review, and Jiraiya was bored. While Jiraiya waited for the lecture, he thumbed through some study guides. The classroom door opened, and a blond girl he didn't recognize walked in. She sat down across from him, turned her head towards him and looked away as if she didn't care for what she saw. He tried to look nonchalant by turning to his notes and looking busy, but he really wanted to know who this new girl was.

Akemi began his lecture, "Ninjutsu is the marriage of spiritual and physical energies which can be controlled through special seals. Some of the effects of jutsu may seem impossible, but they are easily explained once you understand how they work. Not all effects require a seal to invoke their power. With enough focus, you can direct chakra energy to parts of your body and enhance it. They can make muscles stronger, bones harder, or provide extra power to senses, like hearing or sight...."

Jiraiya played with his pencil, uninterested. He looked across the aisle to the girl he saw earlier. She turned her head slightly, noticed him and quickly looked away. He went back to his pencil. He thought back to a conversation Nishi and he had the day before...

"Hey Jiraiya, I heard there's going to be a famous girl in our class." Nishi told him during lunch, with his usual excited expression.

Jiraiya smiled and asked, "Yeah? Who?"

"Senju Tsunade," Nishi replied with incredulity, "Everyone's talking about her."

Jiraiya shook his head and smiled, "A new girl, huh? I think it's time she met me. I'm practically famous around here. Everyone knows me."

His friend Nishi shook his head, "Famous, my ass. You keep wishing, my friend. You better not blow it like you do with all of the other girls. This girl is strong, and might kick your ass if you act the way you usually do."

Jiraiya's thoughts returned to the present. The girl next to him did at least carry herself like she was someone important. She had a way of sitting. Her body language and posture indicated good manners and etiquette training. Her clothing was top quality, and she wore a hint of makeup. As he studied her, she noticed, raised her eyebrows at him and snapped her pencil. He quickly turned his attention towards the Sensei.

There was some part of the conversation Jiraiya missed, but the last part snapped him to attention, "Monogatari-san, maybe you would like to demonstrate?"

Jiraiya nervously walked up and said, "I, uh, forgot what we were demonstrating."

Akemi shook his head in disappointment. "Maybe you should pay more attention to me and less on Senju-san."

The name "Senju" rang a bell. Senju Hashiram was the first Hokage and one of the founders of Konoha. Jiraiya looked over at Senju-san and wondered if she was related. Akemi was staring at him, and he noticed with embarrassment that everyone else did too. In a panic, he prostrated himself in a low bow and yelled, "I'm sorry, Sensei!"

Akemi sighed, folded his arms impatiently and said, "Monagatari-san, please create a clone for your demonstration."

The young man bowed respectfully and said, "Hai Sensei." He closed his eyes and reached back inside himself to bring out spiritual and physical energies. His hands and fingers gestured seals into the air and finished with his index fingers touching each other. At that very moment, he yelled, "Bunshin no jutsu!"

A poof of smoke surrounded the space next to him. When it cleared, a duplicate of him stood next to him. He playfully reached through the illusion with his arm and made bunny ears with his fingers. A few of the kids in the class laughed.

"Thank you," Akemi said with a sigh, "Go to your seat and let someone else try."

Jiraiya strutted towards his desk, grinning like a maniac. He walked by Senju-san. She avoided eye contact, but to her annoyance, he changed direction and walked toward her. He leaned on her desk and smiled winningly at her. The entire class silently watched the spectacle in horror or amusement. Senju-san's face was pink with embarrassment. Jiraiya said, "I'm Jiraiya. It's nice to meet you."

Nishi whispered angrily, "Jiraiya no baka!"

The pretty blond didn't want to talk to him. Her brown eyes squinted dangerously and she replied, "I'll tell you this once. I'm Senju Tsunade, and I don't approve of strangers who think they're above formal introductions. Go away."

Akemi cleared his throat and said, "Monogatari-san, please take your seat and leave her alone."

Jiraiya smirked and whispered in Tsunade's ear, "I saw you looking at me."

Tsunade's fingers tensed against the edges of her desk, cracking the wood slowly. She yelled, "Go away!"

Jiraiya cowered and ran to his desk.

As the days went by, Jiraiya tried harder to impress Tsunade. He generally got in her way. Orochimaru was thankful that some of the attention was drawn away from him, at least. One day, after class, Jiraiya asked Tsunade, "Are you really related to Senju Hashiram?"

"Not that it matters, but yes," She replied in irritation as she focused her chakra energy for an exercise. She stopped what she was doing and asked, "Why do you ask?"

"That's amazing," He exclaimed with wide eyes, "So you're practically a princess, then."

"Don't start with me, Monogatari-san," She said firmly. She sighed, irritated at losing her concentration, then added, to ward off future interruptions, "I'm not in the mood."

He opened his mouth again, causing Tsunade's teeth to clench as she waited for him to bother her again. He stopped to think about what he was going to say, then said, "'Princess Tsunade' has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

She growled, "I would prefer it if you didn't call me that. Look, don't you have something better to do? I know! Maybe you could go count rocks you see as you fall down a cliff?"

Jiraiya frowned and said sarcastically, "If that's what Princess Tsunade commands."

Tsunade's temper flared into rage. She focused chakra into her arm muscles and punched him so hard, he flew against the wall. She screamed, "I told you to stop!" He slumped on the floor with a bloody nose and a glazed over look. She bit her lip in worry. She felt for his pulse and was relieved to feel one. Angry at herself, she stared at her hand. There was a rush over the power she could wield, and an overwhelming feeling of guilt.

Akemi came around the corner and saw Jiraiya on the ground. He immediately checked Jiraiya for life signs and sighed, "Well, you didn't kill him."

"I'm sorry, Sensei!" Tsunade apologized with guilty tears starting. She fought them off and wiped her eyes.

"We'll talk about this after I get him to the infirmary." Akemi replied softly. He did a quick check for broken bones and carefully carried Jiraiya off.

Medical ninjas accepted Jiraiya into their ward and looked after him. After getting a bandage on his nose and some basic healing jutsu on his bruises and contusions, he woke up. He looked around and heard Akemi talking to one of the medical staff.

"Please let me know as soon as he wakes up." Akemi said. He turned around and saw that Jiraiya was staring at him and added, "Never mind." He peered over Jiraiya and said, "Tch. You really made her mad this time, Monogatari-san."

Jiraiya's head hurt, and so did his heart. "All I did was call her a Princess." He protested sulkily.

"You will just have to accept that she just doesn't like you," Akemi said sympathetically. He sat down on a chair next to the hospital bed. He held his breath and then added, "Why can't you find another nice girl to be friends with?"

"Nobody wants to be friends with me. Orochimaru told me that he isn't my friend, and now she doesn't want to be my friend either. Nobody wants me."

"That isn't true." Akemi disagreed lamely, knowing that it was probably true. To change the subject, he asked, "Why do you think she acts this way?"

"Because I'm probably not doing the right things to impress her. I told her about all of the jutsu I knew, and showed her my cool poses." Jiraiya replied with a sad shrug. He couldn't keep his eyes on Akemi.

"OK. But have you been listening to her? Really listened?" Akemi offered, trying to lead Jiraiya to the root of the issue.

"I hear what she says just fine." Jiraiya replied, wrinkling his brow in irritation.

"No, Monogatari-san," Akemi stated flatly, "I'm sorry, but you don't. She asked you to leave her alone over and over again. I've heard her myself. I hate to do this, but this is an order. That is what you will do from now on."

Jiraiya's cheeks flushed and the humiliation of being scolded by Sensei and being disliked by Tsunade. A big lump filled this throat and there was a lot of pain in his heart. He silently cursed to himself that he screwed up; he did something wrong to upset her, so he promised he'd make it up to her and say the right thing next time. All of this was contrary to the lesson that Sensei was trying to teach him, but Jiraiya had selective hearing and a lot of denial.

Akemi patted Jiraiya on the shoulder and said, "Get some rest. Tomorrow we're going to have another talk about this." He walked away slowly and closed the door behind him.

Jiraiya closed his eyes and fell asleep. He didn't care much for facing the rest of the day, and his head hurt.

Tsunade walked into the room timidly. She gasped when she saw Jiraiya's face black and blue and swollen. She started to feel like she shouldn't be there, but she felt morally obligated to apologize to him. So she went to Jiraiya's side and said softly, "Jiraiya-san..."

Jiraiya didn't move. He was snoring softly. There was something serene and less idiotic about the boy when his eyes were closed. She hated herself all the more for what she did. She leaned over and said in a whisper, "I'm sorry for hitting you like that. I can't stand my temper problem. Yes, you irritate me and drive me nuts, but I had no right to do that to you. I only hope you can forgive me." She wiped her eyes and hesitated before leaving. She kissed Jiraiya's forehead and walked away.

The next day, Akemi led Jiraiya to the Hokage mansion. He said to Jiraiya, "This is for your own good, Monogatari-san."

Jiraiya was out of the infirmary, and had a horrible headache. On top of that, he felt miserably depressed about Tsunade hitting him. Every footstep to the mansion was like wearing lead weights. He turned to Akemi and said in a clearly depressed tone, "I don't care anymore. Just do what you will."

The mansion was a several stories tall cylindrical shaped building with a huge mountain behind it with a sheer rock face and graven images of past Hokages carved into it. The entrance to the building was simple and had a stairway that led to the second floor where the Hokage's office was.

They went into the building and knocked on the door to the Hokage's office. Jiraiya was scared. He had been in trouble before, but never was brought in front of the Hokage before. After being let in, Akemi bowed formally to the Nidaime Hokage, Senju Tobirama.

"So this is our troublemaker, Jukei?" Tobirama asked, pressing his fingertips together several times. He was a trim, good looking man in his forties. His face had triangular marks painted on it, his hair was gray and fashionably spiky and he wore white ceremonial robes which indicated his position as Hokage. He studied Akemi's expressions.

"Hai." Akemi replied in respectful tones. He gestured towards Jiraiya and said, "I've warned Monogatari-san several times not to harass Senju-san, but conventional punishment hasn't been enough. Taking him here to see you was a last resort."

Jiraiya protested sullenly, "I didn't harass her. I called her a princess."

Tobirama made a face and cautioned, "Monogatari-san, Tsunade-chan is my grand-niece. Speak more respectfully about her."

Jiraiya sighed and bowed, "Hai, Hokage-sama."

Akemi checked his watch and turned to Tobirama, "Will you take of this matter for me, Hokage-sama? I have class in five minutes."

"I'll take responsibility." Tobirama said and waved dismissively. Akemi bowed and headed towards the door. Jiraiya started to follow him.

Tobirama ordered, "No, Monogatari-san, stay."

Jiraiya stopped and slumped his shoulders. Tobirama gestured towards an ornate wooden chair. Jiraiya walked over to it, sat down, and frowned.

Tobirama leaned back and added, "Sensei has been reporting all of your progress throughout the year to me. You've done some great things, and your scores are impressive, but this thing with Tsunade-chan troubles me."

Jiraiya complained, "Wasn't getting punched by her enough punishment? Now you're going to lecture me because I like her."

Nidaime Hokage smiled coldly and tapped his fingers together. "You know that's not the reason I've called you here, Monogatari-san. Let me ask you a simple question. Has she ever told you to stop talking to her, or to leave her alone?"

"That's what Jukei-sensei asked me. I'll tell you the same thing. She did, but I'm sure she didn't want me to leave her completely alone. I must have said something to make her upset at me."

"You aren't truthful with yourself, Monogatari-san. I can see no other way to do this. Sometimes you need to hear the truth from the source." Tobirama shuffled some papers on his desk. He opened a file and pulled a sheet of paper out of it. He tapped the document and commanded, "Read it."

Jiraiya accepted the yellow document and opened it reluctantly. Jiraiya turned the pages, and noticed that there were complaints with each page. All of them were from Tsunade asking for a transfer, or begging Jiraiya to be expelled. Jiraiya's heart sank as he thought, 'Expelled…did she hate me this much?'

"Does this sound like a girl that wants your attention?"

Jiraiya's face fell. He looked down at the highly polished wooden desk and sighed, "I guess not."

"Now that you've started to get the idea, it's time for your punishment, Monogatari-san. "

"Punishment?" Jiraiya worriedly asked.

"You are now on cleanup duty at the men's public bath until graduation."

Jiraiya shuddered at the though of overweight men in bath towels. He said with a bow, "I'll do my best, Hokage-sama."

"That's not all. After graduation, I will resolve this issue in a more permanent and creative way, but most of all, you are not to harass Tsunade-chan any further."

"Hai, Hokage-sama." Jiraiya said, bowing and leaving. He held in his anger for another time.

Chapter 1 – There's no "I" in Teamwork

It was bright and clear with the warmth of the impending summer coming. Akemi's class stood in the front of the school, fanning themselves or trying to capture some shade wherever they could.

Akemi stood in front of a podium with a ceremonial Sensei's robe on. He smiled at his students proudly. He motioned for the first of his students to approach him. As they arrived he shook their hand and gave them a graduation gift. It was a forehead protector made of a metal band, cloth straps and an etched symbol representing a leaf.

Jiraiya walked up to the podium and received his forehead protector from Akemi. He posed victoriously for the crowd, holding his fingers up in a "V" sign. Grumbles were heard from the crowd. Orochimaru and Tsunade started to feel headaches coming on in embarrassment.

Afterwards, the graduates went into the lobby to check the giant roster to see who was assigned to which Sensei for their Genin test. Genin was the first paid rank of ninja. After passing, they could begin earning their commission as ninjas on D ranked missions.

Jiraiya nervously peered at the chart and ran his hand along it. He found a line with his name on it and the name of his Sensei. He was amazed. It was "Sarutobi Hiruzen", also known as "The Professor". He was famous for having known one thousand techniques. He grinned with excitement and yelled, "I have Sarutobi-sensei!" The crowd behind him looked fit to hit him.

Tsunade pushed her way in to look at her assignment. After reading it, she beat the wall with her fist, knocking a brick loose and screamed angrily. Orochimaru stood next to her and looked questioningly. She growled ferociously, "I'm going to be stuck with Jiraiya!"

Orochimaru looked at the chart and shook his head, saying, "Me too. It looks like I've been assigned to the same team."

"I'll kill him before I team up with him!" Tsunade said, clenching her teeth and stomping her foot. A crack in the wooden floor appeared under her foot.

Later that night at home, Tsunade drifted off asleep in her bed and was dreaming. In her dream, she stood on the rocky summit of a mountain. She wore a light pink kimono with sakura flowers embroidered on it. When she turned around, Jiraiya was there. His hair was finely groomed, for once, which took her by surprise. She wrinkled her brow in confusion.

He extended his hand where he held a white lily and said, "This is for you, Princess."

She touched her face and looked at the lily strangely. She hesitated, not knowing how to react and said lamely, "Uh, thanks."

Jiraiya caressed her cheeks in his hands and gazed at her intensely. He drew close with his lips parted. Tsunade felt revulsion and something else she couldn't identify -- panic? Just as she was lost in thought, Jiraiya's soft moist lips touched hers. She tried to protest, but she was unable to control herself. She screamed inside her mind, 'No! Not him! Kami protect me!'

The dream world faded, and Tsunade woke from her dream. Her nightgown was dewy with cold sweat. She clenched her teeth and felt tears of shame trickle down. This was followed by a feeling of embarrassment, and confusion as she covered her face in her pillow and hit it, crying, "Why Jiraiya? Why?" She threw her pillow aside and slid out of bed.

She paced, rubbing her shoulders nervously, trying her best to get rid of the nightmare. She walked by a window and stared out at the inky black sky. A moonbeam barely lit up the ground outside. She wanted to look at something, to vanquish the thoughts in her head, and to find a way to forget the experience. She was angry at herself because, even with her disgust, some part of her enjoyed the sensation of the kiss.

She shakily walked into the kitchen and opened up a cupboard. It contained some roots stashed away which could induce sleep. She grabbed a kettle, filled it with water, and turned on the flame on her stove. She put the roots into her bowl-shaped mortar and ground them up with her heavy wooden pestle. After the roots became pulpy, she put the pulp into a small basket which had a clasp on it to keep it closed and dropped it into a teapot. The kettle began to whistle on the stove. She walked over and pulled it off the flame. She brought it over to her teapot and poured in the hot water. She let it steep while groggily talking to herself, "I'm just overreacting. I shouldn't let him get to me." She shifted the little root-filled basket around in the hot water. Eventually, the water became bluish and smelled a little like mint. She breathed in the steam a little and started to feel a bit more relaxed. She grabbed one of her teacups and carefully poured the hot liquid from the teapot into her cup. She sat down and sipped on it, looking around the kitchen languidly. She yawned.

Footsteps came in from around the corner and her little brother walked in. He was short, maybe five years old, and his hair was sticking up all over the place from having just woken up. He rubbed his tired eyes and whined, "Onee-san, the kettle woke me up."

Tsunade apologetically smiled and said, "I'm sorry, Nawaki-chan. Come sit down next to me. I'll let you have some of my tea."

The little boy shuffled over to his big sister and sat on the chair next to her. She put a cup in front of him and poured the blue liquid into it. He looked thankful and said, "Arigato, Onee-san." He thought that the liquid looked a little strange, but it smelled good, and he was a little thirsty. He took a sip.

"I'm sorry I woke you up." Tsunade said after sipping and setting her cup down, "I'm just nervous about the Genin test tomorrow."

"Are you really a ninja?"

"Hai," Tsunade replied, smiling. She put her arm around him and asked, "Are you proud of me?"

"Hai." Nawaki said, nodding and smiling. He wiped his eyes and yawned.

"You are still very tired. Do you want to sleep with onee-san tonight?"

He nodded. He put his tea down on the table and stood up, then put his arms out for her.

She picked him up and took him to her room and laid him down on her bed. She smiled sweetly when she saw his eyes were already closed. She yawned, stretched, and pulled the blankets over both of them then drifted off to sleep.

The next morning was difficult. Jiraiya was up so early in anticipation that he didn't eat breakfast. Tsunade ate, but wished she hadn't. She was queasy after recalling her nightmare. When everyone arrived at the meeting location, she was so disgusted; she couldn't look at him without feeling ill. Orochimaru looked at both of them as they lined up at the meeting place. He smirked when he saw Jiraiya's discomfort.

Jiraiya clutched his stomach. He yelled, "Sensei, I'm starving!"

Orochimaru groaned, "Be a man, baka. Stop crying like a baby."

Hiruzen rose his hand to silence the two and said solemnly, "Today, you will all prove to Konoha you are ready to follow the principles of Nindo and work as a team. The results of this determine if you will make Genin rank and become a commissioned ninja."

Tsunade frowned and raised her hand and said, "How are we supposed to work as a team? I can't stand Jiraiya."

Orochimaru agreed. Jiraiya folded his arms and protested, "I deserve to be here as much as either of you."

"I'm well aware of how you two feel, but this is a test. Monagatari-san is here because you don't want him to be." Hiruzen said, "In battle, it is common to overcome personal differences and build bonds that could never be forged otherwise. I will test your ability to follow this basic principle."

Jiraiya thought gleefully, 'And this is my chance to get close to my Princess.'

Hiruzen continued, "This is a standard test. You must take these bells from me before noon." His hand brushed against two small bells on his utility belt and he continued, "You will only need one bell to pass. Since there are only two bells here, the one that doesn't get a bell does not get to eat lunch. Furthermore, the one that fails will be tied to a tree stump while I eat my lunch right in front of them. That person will also be sent back to the academy. Any questions?"

The teenagers looked at each other and shook their heads.

"The test begins... now!" Hiruzen said, then clapped his hands together and summoned a wind which blew him high over the trees.

Orochimaru, Tsunade, and Jiraiya split up.

Orochimaru leapt to a tree and stuck his kunai in his mouth. His green eyes scanned the field and other trees for a sign of Sensei. He saw Jiraiya below, wandering around on foot. From the academy training, this was an obvious mistake. 'Baka.' Orochimaru thought, 'Sarutobi-sensei will see you.'

Sure enough, Hiruzen sprung out of the ground from behind Jiraiya and held a kunai to the boy's throat. He leaned over and said, "A ninja never gives away his position."

Tsunade jumped from a nearby tree and took advantage of Hiruzen's distraction by running towards him. He did a few seals with his hands, clapped them together and a giant earthen mound sprung up in front of him, blocking her path. Tsunade energized her legs with chakra and leapt up to the top of the mound, but Hiruzen disappeared. She turned around a few times looking for him, but failed to see him. She realized that her position was compromised, so she somersaulted off the mound and ran to some bushes quickly.

Meanwhile, Jiraiya was up to his neck in a mud mound summoned around him. He felt completely humiliated to be seen like that in front of Tsunade.

Orochimaru watched silently. His instincts told him there was something not right. After a minute, the mound next to Jiraiya's reduced to nothing and Hiruzen jumped out of it. Orochimaru smiled to himself and dropped down to the base of the tree he was in. He peered around the corner and watched Hiruzen tap on Jiraiya's mud mound. "Maybe you should give up, Jiraiya. You're not cut out to be a ninja."

"I'll never give up!" Jiraiya yelled angrily. He struggled uselessly against the hardened clay.

Hiruzen laughed and disappeared in a puff of smoke. Tsunade found herself trying not to laugh, despite the seriousness of the test.

Much of the rest of the test went on like this. Orochimaru, Jiraiya or Tsunade would end up taking turns being trapped or humiliated in battles and getting an earful about what they did wrong by their Sensei. In the end, none of them were able to get the bells.

Jiraiya walked by a rock and spotted some food. Just as he headed towards it, another rope coiled around his leg and he hit his head on a branch. The world went dark. When he opened his eyes, he was tied to a stump. He struggled, and tried to free himself, but the ropes were tied too well.

Tsunade and Orochimaru walked around the corner of a nearby boulder. They were scratched, bruised, and generally worse for wear. The most obvious thing was the way their pride looked to be hurt. Tsunade frowned in a near-pout. Even Orochimaru looked somehow worn down. When Tsunade saw Jiraiya, her mood immediately improved and she burst out laughing.

Jiraiya was incredibly embarrassed by being seen that way. "It's not funny!" He yelled, but soon he was laughing along with her.

"You are really a baka, Monogatari-san." Tsunade said, giggling. Both of them felt better, despite the troubles they've had.

Hiruzen appeared from behind the same boulder. He looked unhappy. He said, seriously, "The results of the test is that none of you will need to return to the academy."

Everyone looked relieved.

Orochimaru looked confused, "But none of us retrieved the bells."

Tsunade nodded in agreement. "I don't understand this test, Sensei."

"You should quit being ninjas!" Hiruzen replied, "None of you grasped the true meaning of the test. Why do you think we broke you up into groups?"

All three teens looked shocked. Hiruzen paced around them and explained, "All of you went off on your own. The point of this exercise was teamwork. On that point, you all failed miserably. If all of you worked together, you could have gotten these bells."

"There's only two bells, Sensei. There's no way working as a team would be fair. One person would always be without one." Jiraiya groused.

"That's how the test was designed. Someone had to sacrifice themselves in order to help the team. You never know what sorts of situations could happen. You might have to make a hard decision between two lives in a tough situation. This is the kind of thing a ninja may have to deal with."

Orochimaru rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said, "I see."

Hiruzen walked over to Jiraiya and said to the other two, "I will give you all another chance."

There were three hopeful looks from the teens.

Hiruzen continued, "However the battle for the bell will be more intense after lunch. Eat lunch only if you're ready to take on that challenge, but don't let Jiraiya eat. This is punishment for breaking the rules and trying to eat lunch early. If anyone feeds him, they will immediately fail."

Hiruzen handed Orochimaru and Tsunade their lunches and walked away.

Tsunade and Orochimaru sat next to the tree stump, eating. Orochimaru could practically hear Jiraiya's stomach churning from the lack of food. He tuned his senses the area around him and didn't detect any sign of Hiruzen. He looked at the bento contemplatively and then decided aloud, "I'm going to give him some of my food."

Jiraiya said, "But you'll fail. You heard the Sensei. I'm okay. I …" A loud grumbling from his belly could be heard.

Tsunade said, "You're right. In order to pass the next test, we'll need Jiraiya to have enough energy too. It's the only way."

She looked at her bento and offered it over to Jiraiya. Jiraiya wiggled his hands, but clearly could not grasp anything. She realized then that she would have to feed it to him, which was a tradition for someone with a closer relationship to a boy. She yelled, "Just because I'm going to feed you this, doesn't mean I've changed my mind about you, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya opened his mouth and Tsunade put some rice in there.

Suddenly, the ground shook. A giant dripping dragon made from mud with fiery red glowing eyes pushed up out of the ground with Hiruzen on its back. He yelled, "You broke the rules! Are you prepared for your punishment?"

Jiraiya said, "But we're a team! That's why these two fed me! To help me!"

Tsunade stood by Jiraiya and said, "Yes, that's true!"

Orochimaru said, "We have to act as a team, even now."

"We'll work together to defeat you!" Jiraiya said.

The sight of the elemental dragon was frightening to all of them. Hiruzen clapped his hands, and the dragon disappeared with a splash. He bowed to the three, and said cheerfully, "You pass!"

"We pass?" Tsunade said, incredulously.

"Yes, you all three pass."

"Why?" Jiraiya asked in confusion.

"Because, you stood up to me. You broke the rules to help your teammate. Though it is very bad in the ninja world to break the rules, it is even worse to ignore a friend in need."

Orochimaru asked, "So we're … ninjas now?"

"Yes! We'll start our first mission tomorrow!" Hiruzen said, grinning.

"Thank Kami-sama," Tsunade breathed.

Hiruzen started to walk away. Orochimaru and Tsunade joined him. It wasn't until they were quite a distance that Jiraiya realized that he was still tied to the tree, and nobody helped him get free. He gritted his teeth and fished out a kunai from his utility belt and worked the ropes with it. After finally cutting through the ropes, he ran home, happy to be a ninja.

The next morning, Jiraiya awoke with a happy grin on his face. He slurped up his breakfast quickly and ran out the door to the Hokage mansion where the team was going to meet to get their first mission.

The mission was far more involved than Jiraiya heard about from others. According to the papers in front of him, he and his team were to go on a trek to obtain missing maps for the middle continent which was far west of Konohagakure. Also, they were supposed to document the indigenous peoples that inhabited the region. Orochimaru had known Hiruzen from his childhood, so he helped plan things. After several weeks of endurance exercises and special training, they set out on their journey.

The trip to the Oyama mountain range was long since it was half a continent away from Konoha. They stayed in inns at small towns and villages when they could, and camped the rest of the time. As they approached the mountains at the higher elevations, it grew colder. Sensei had them switch clothing and gear.

The rest of the trip was over a few rarely used mountain trails. Fifty days of hiking wore the team out, so they stopped on a particularly rocky crag on the top of one of the mountain peaks with less snow and good wind protection. Jiraiya pushed his face mask up a little to cover his nose. The thin air caused him to breathe a little heavier than normal. He jumped onto a boulder and asked, panting, "How much further is it, Sensei?"

"Over there." Hiruzen said as he pointed to a distant mountain.

"Great. This mission really sucks," Jiraiya complained. He set his pack down and took out a pen and paper. After he wrote down some marks to indicate their position, he said with a frown, "That mountain we're going to is at least another week away."

Orochimaru snarled, "If it's too much for you, why don't you just go home?"

"Whatever you say, Oro-chan." Jiraiya teased, pulling his lower eyelid down and sticking his tongue out.

Orochimaru grabbed Jiraiya by his shirt and hissed, "I told younot to call me that."

Tsunade knew that this was going to turn into yet another fight. Tensions ran high over the long journey several times. 'These two had been going at it for two months', she thought, 'if they don't stop, I'm going to lose it!'

"O-ro-chan." Jiraiya mouthed slowly. He kneed Orochimaru in the shin forcefully. Orochimaru let go of him and groaned in pain.

"Stop teasing him, Jiraiya!" Tsunade yelled. She reached out her hand to help Orochimaru, but he refused it and leapt onto Jiraiya and punched him on the cheek. Then Jiraiya pulled him into a headlock and kneed him in the chest.

Hiruzen warned, "Stop this, all of you, or I'll end it." Both boys had their fists cocked and then moved away from each other. Hiruzen's word was final.

'Jiraiya should know better,' Tsunade thought with a sigh. She often wished she was paired up with more mature team members.

They began to move again through the snow, albeit slowly because drifts collected on the trail. On the sixth day, a terrible wind blew. The setting sun shone dully through a ruddy red haze as the fine dry particles of powder snow whipped all around. Sensei guessed that the temperature dropped well below freezing.

"So cold," Tsunade moaned as she put her hands in the armpits of her thick coat. Orochimaru and Jiraiya nodded in agreement.

"We had better get out of this wind, or we'll die." Hiruzen yelled through the noisy wind. "Look for a natural wall."

They searched around. After some cursing and fumbling (mostly Jiraiya), they found a cropping of rocks with deep snow next to them.

"You two boys create a snow cave." Hiruzen instructed the two rivals loudly. "Tsunade, please stand watch outside with me, in case of collapse." They dug into their packs and removed small shovels as instructed. Orochimaru dug the ice-covered snow drift and made piles of snow behind him. Jiraiya hauled it out. It took at least half an hour before a deep cave was carved out.

Everyone was eager to go inside from the cold. The team worked together to pack the snow on the walls to make it more durable. Hiruzen directed the team to create raised shelves for sleeping, and showed how to poke a hole in the roof for air. He set a burning candle on the floor for warmth. It danced and radiated a soft yellow glow against the snow walls.

Tsunade went outside to gather snow for a door. She formed a few bricks of snow and walled in the entrance, leaving some room for air. When she was done, her teeth chattered. She said. "Sensei, I'm really cold and my feet itch."

Hiruzen's eyes looked sympathetic. He pulled her gloves off and inspected her hands. They were warm enough. He pointed down at her feet and said, "Check your toes, just in case."

The blond girl's eyebrows wrinkled as she strained to pull her boot off. When she finally managed to get them off, her socks were soaked in melted snow. She pulled them off and she could see her feet were reddish. All three of her teammates looked concerned.

"Let me see your foot." Orochimaru said flatly. He examined her foot and determined that it she had the beginnings of frostbite. He opened his pack and pulled out a jar of warming salve. He smoothed the jelly on Tsunade's feet and activated its special warming properties with his chakra energy. Tsunade blushed in embarrassment. "Next time, be more careful." Orochimaru warned without smiling, "You'll jeopardize the mission if you lose half your foot."

"Thanks." She said, feeling slightly insulted and closed her eyes. Orochimaru worked mechanically to pull off her other boot and check the other foot. Tsunade gritted her teeth at the feeling of pins and needles and some pain in her feet.

Jiraiya eyes flashed with jealously as he thought, 'Here she is, ignoring me and soaking up Orochimaru's attention.'

Hiruzen removed a scroll from his pack and said, "What do you all want for dinner?"

Jiraiya's wore a smile and replied, "I'll have some fish with rice and bean salad."

"I'll have the same." Tsunade said, noticing Jiraiya's peculiar expression.

"Rice and pickles." The dark haired boy said and repacked his medical items.

Hiruzen pulled out a scroll and invoked seals to unlock the writing on the scroll. Jars of food slipped out of their dimensional storage and appeared on the seal on the paper. The spiral symbol in the middle of the parchment glowed briefly and faded. He repeated this for each item the team requested.

Jiraiya stared at the jar with floating green blobs in it. "Yuck, pickles."

Orochimaru smirked, unscrewed the jar and ate one of the pickles. Everyone else grabbed their own food.

Tsunade ate some melted snow and asked, "So, Sensei, what can we expect when we get to there?"

Jiraiya leaned in towards her and said, "I've been wondering about that myself."

"The kingdom of Yamaguni was discovered around thirty years ago after one of our exploration balloons headed for the northern ice cap ended up with a faulty burner. A rescue team was dispatched by the kingdom to help the survivors. When they all arrived, they were amazed by the warm climate and large plants. It is said that the ground is warm to the touch due to volcanic heat. Plants in the countryside were giant sized as were many creatures that lived there."

"I don't understand. Doesn't the heat burn everything up?"

Orochimaru chewed his rice ball quietly. He was tempted to tell Jiraiya that he was an idiot. Tsunade did him the favor and said, "Jiraiya, why do you ask such stupid questions?"

Hiruzen smiled, "There are no stupid questions, Tsunade; only irrelevant ones."

"But he never stops asking them!" Tsunade protested.

Hiruzen laid a hand on her shoulder. "Asking questions is the fastest path to learning. Meditate on that." He turned to Jiraiya and said, "The source of the heat is deep underneath the surface. Some of the heat makes it all of the way up to the surface, but it has to go through layers of rock to reach it. It's kind of like having a hot water bottle underneath your pillow. The pillow insulates you from the full effect of the heat. This mountain range has an even coating of rock covering the molten rock. Over time, it may change and cause problems for the people that live here, but so far that hasn't happened."

"So, tell us about the people that live there, Sensei. What are they like?" Tsunade asked.

"The kingdom itself is governed by a parliament, much like our village council. As for the culture of the people, they are similar to us in many ways, except their complicated system of honor and lack of technology. Not much is known about the people as the explorers were only exposed to the military and some government officials. We will try to fill in these gaps in knowledge when we visit. Our first stop is meeting with the prince."

"Why are we meeting him?" Tsunade asked.

Hiruzen watched the flickering of the candle and replied, "Prince Reiki has some maps we could use. Our village lacks a diplomatic connection to make the request any easier."

Orochimaru sneered, "Screw diplomacy! We don't have time for it. Just sneak into their library and take the maps."

Jiraiya glared at him, "And when they catch us sneaking?"

Hiruzen looked at Orochimaru, "The Fire Lord was very specific about being on a peaceful mission. Acts of aggression would certainly be seen as an act of hostility or war."

"I don't see why we should listen to the Fire Lord." The pale boy stated with disgust. "Konoha is the military might of the nation. We know best what's good for security, not some fattened politician."

Jiraiya countered. "That's messed up. If you don't pick your battles, you'll screw up your chances at making an ally."

"Achieving our objective isn't messed up." Orochimaru countered then smiled coldly. "If negotiations break down, we may have to take those maps by force. I, for one, am prepared to do it. I don't need a coward like you to tell me what the right thing to do is."

Jiraiya gritted his teeth and said, "Moron. If negotiations break down, we are dead."

Tsunade looked at Jiraiya and interjected diplomatically, "I think Orochimaru is just saying that even if things don't go our way, we must try to meet our objectives, no matter what the cost is. That is Nindo, isn't it?"

Hiruzen sighed morosely at Orochimaru, "War is inevitable for our village, sooner or later. We just can't afford to start new wars right now. There are too many countries that would take the opportunity to stab us in the back while we're engaged in war with another."

The pale teen leaned against an ice shelf, "War is also our primary source of business, Sensei. Isn't that what the Chuunin selection is about? A show of power? For someone so versed in ways of killing a man, 'Professor', I'd expect you to agree."

"If you tip the vessel of power too much, Orochimaru, you may spill and lose everything." Hiruzen said seriously.

"Peaceful people grow fat and useless over time. They leave themselves open to slaughter in a real conflict."

Hiruzen removed his hat and shook his head at Orochimaru. "I'm done talking about this subject for now." He turned to the rest. "Everyone get some sleep. According to my calculations, we have three more days of traveling before we reach the territory of Yamaguni." He reached into his bag and pulled out a scroll. After some seals, the scroll produced blankets and thick insulating bags from a dimensional locker.

Everyone grabbed their bags and blankets and climbed into them. Jiraiya turned on his side away from everyone. He was sad because he could never get up the courage to confess his feelings completely to Tsunade.

Exhaustion overtook the team and they all slept soundly.