Be Strong! Never Give Up!

After a long day of training, traveling, and bickering, Jiraiya and Naruto found a forest clearing to camp overnight in. Since both of them had pushed themselves to the limit, they needed a rest after putting up the tents and gathering the firewood. As the sun set, they sat down on the grass for a breather.

The sun setting through the trees, streaking yellow and orange, painting the clouds that strawberry lemonade color, was beautiful…but it couldn't hold Jiraiya's attention for long. Not with Naruto chattering at him.

"I don't feel like I'm getting any stronger," Naruto complained. That was the end of a tirade Jiraiya had mostly tuned out.

Jiraiya decided it was time to have a serious talk. He'd been waiting because he hated serious talks. And if he hadn't been exhausted, if he hadn't been worried, if he hadn't endured similar complaints and frustrations for six weeks…he'd still be putting this talk off.

"There's more to training than being strong," Jiraiya said. He gave Naruto a frown, determined to stick it out this time. He'd gotten this far lots of times before deciding it was too much trouble to punch the meaning of his statement through Naruto's skull.

Naruto sighed. "Every time you say that it makes me wanna punch my own lights out. You never make any sense when you start going off the deep end into that stuff."

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes, mildly irritated. "Well, too bad." He was reminded that talking to Naruto was like talking to a younger version of himself. Mouthy, disrespectful, hyperactive, low attention span, argumentative, and stubborn. How did Sarutobi-sensei put up with me?

But that was a subject for another day.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at Jiraiya. "Why can't we just cook, eat, and go to bed? I'm tired. I don't wanna listen to any of this philosophy stuff."

Jiraiya shifted, turning to that he sat facing away from Naruto. "Okay, but you're not learning anything this way." He crossed his arms over his chest and glanced back at Naruto meaningfully. "If you really wanna be strong, you're gonna need more than guts and brawn."

"What do you mean?" Naruto pouted. "Ero-sennin, if you're trying to keep some big, bad secret from me –"

"Don't call me that," Jiraiya retorted.

"Tell me," Naruto protested, squirming.

Now that Naruto was properly angry and determined to Know The Truth, Jiraiya turned back to him and got settled. "Fighting's about love, right? You fight because you want to protect your precious people."

Naruto nodded, frowning in determination. "Right!"

"So who fights for you?" Jiraiya asked.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Naruto scratched his head.

"You fight for people, right?" Jiraiya asked.

"I fight for Sakura-chan and Sasuke and Kaka-sensei and Iruka-sensei and –"

Jiraiya held up his hand. "You can name 'em off. You got a list in your head. You feel love for them in your heart. But who fights for you? Who's got you on their list of precious people?"

This was obviously harder for Naruto. He fidgeted and scratched his head and looked around as if someone else could give him the answer.

"People are strongest when they fight together," Jiraiya said. "You have to consider who's on your list of precious people, and coordinate with those that call you a precious person. So that you can weave bands of people together, for protection." He gestured as he spoke. "Got it? You've got to stick together. It's not going to work if you try to make a pyramid, with yourself at the top. You can't be the spearhead protecting everyone else while no one protects you. That's how you're going to die. You don't wanna die, now do you? If you die you can't protect any of your precious people."

Naruto nodded, wide-eyed.

Jiraiya shifted, reached out, and wrapped his arm around Naruto, pulling Naruto closer. "I'm on your list of precious people." He gave Naruto a look. Right?

Naruto looked away, while at the same time scooting closer so that he could rest against Jiraiya's side. "Maybe."

Jiraiya withheld the urge to laugh. "Alright then. You're on my list of precious people."

Naruto's gaze snapped to him instantly. "I am?"

"Yeah." Jiraiya smirked and poked Naruto's nose lightly. "I would die to protect you, kid."

Naruto's brow furrowed.

"So wise up." Jiraiya stared him down. "Don't do something stupid and go off by yourself. I need you and you need me, 'kay? Cause we're each other's precious people. So you don't walk away. You don't go into battle by yourself. You go into a fight with me there, so we can protect each other."

Naruto mulled this over with wide eyes.

"When people are precious, you don't let them fight alone," Jiraiya said. "You have to band together to defeat something. So tell me who's on your list of precious people."

Naruto frowned, concentrating by rubbing his chin. "Sakura-chan…Sasuke…Kaka-sensei…Iruka-sensei…"

"Okay, let's stop right there and consider." Jiraiya held up his hand. "Who among those people puts you on their list of precious people? Who moves to protect you when you're in a crisis?"

Naruto frowned harder, chewing his lip. "Sakura-chan did sorta…Kaka-sensei I guess tries to protect me. Iruka-sensei does but he's busy all the time. Sasuke did once, but then he didn't anymore. I don't know what changed."

Jiraiya saw the hurt on Naruto's face and hugged Naruto tightly. "Okay, it sounds like Sakura-chan maybe wants to protect you and doesn't know how. Kakashi I can agree with, I know he's really attached to you. 'Ruka's the same, he's a softie when it comes to you. Sasuke…I think maybe something bad got into him, like a forbidden jutsu, I know that has a way of changing people…so it's like the Sasuke you knew doesn't exist anymore. I'm sorry. The real Sasuke cares, but he's not here. You've got Forbidden-Sasuke to deal with."

Naruto rubbed his eyes, scowled, and resolutely refused to cry.

"So out of the four, you've got two people who are willing and able to defend you, except you feel like they're not in your life," Jiraiya said.

Naruto nodded hesitantly.

"Keep on going," Jiraiya said. "List off some more people."

"Shikamaru kind of cares," Naruto said. "But he says I'm too much trouble. I can never read that guy. He always says one thing and does another."

"So you don't feel safe with him around," Jiraiya said.


Jiraiya squeezed him and rubbed his back. "Who else?"

Naruto looked at him doubtfully. "Well, there's you."

"And you know almost nothing about me," Jiraiya said wryly. "It's all over your face."

Naruto looked away guiltily. "You said you knew my father, but if he died, and you weren't around for me, how well could you really know him at all?"

"I didn't know what was going to happen," Jiraiya said, resigned to this conversation. "I had no idea that everyone would decide to treat you that way. I wasn't around because I was looking for your father's killer, and I wanted to keep you safe from harm, from that threat."

"Yeah…You said there was someone at the village who let the Kyuubi loose," Naruto said. "Other people talk about it as well when they think I'm not there…A stranger with a funny mask…He came and destroyed the village, with the Kyuubi."

"That's right," Jiraiya said gently. "And I suspected he had something to do with Orochimaru, so I was trying to keep them both away from you. You count among my list of precious people, so I was trying to save you. Not just Konoha. You as well."

"But Orochimaru showed up and you weren't there…"

"I came a little late," Jiraiya admitted. "I lost track of Orochimaru because the man who wore the mask isn't connected with Orochimaru. Not very well. I found out who the man in the mask is, and that led me to Akatsuki, but Orochimaru was only in Akatsuki a short time before he left to make his own organization."

"So that's why we're training now," Naruto said. "To harness the Nine Tails so Akatsuki doesn't take it away from me. Because if they do, I'll die."

Jiraiya nodded and stroked Naruto's hair. It was horribly depressing to hear Naruto summarize it, but it was true. "Because I don't want you to die," he said softly. "I love you."

Naruto absorbed that uncertainly.

"But if you love me, why do we fight all the time?" Naruto asked finally.

Jiraiya smiled ruefully. "There's a difference between love and communication. I suck at communication."

"Me too," Naruto said.

He ruffled Naruto's hair. "Then we'll work on it."

Naruto clenched his fists, his chakra flaming up. "Really hard!" He threw a couple of mock punches. "Until we get it right!" He gave Jiraiya the kind of manic grin that made Jiraiya wonder just what kind of action hero fantasies went on in Naruto's head. "We'll never give up."

That kind of speech was best reserved for a dramatic climax and not for a heart to heart conversation about communicating with loved ones, but Jiraiya took it as a serious declaration of intent to forge a bond with him.

So Jiraiya just hugged him and let the humorousness slide. "We won't. We'll never give up."