A/N: The last challenge I received for my journal meme (I must do this again sometime, it was much fun). Request from Jess. Title: "Second Time Around," couple: Tsunade/Jiraiya, and line is "A good drinking buddy is a valuable commodity, as long as s/he doesn't expect you to pick up the tab."

POV style that I haven't used in a while. Forgive the choppiness; I swear that it writes itself in. And way over the limit to boot, but DAMN did I love writing it.

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"Second Time Around"

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You've heard the story, right? Your Sarutobi-sensei told it to you. He told it to you and you think about it all the time and pray that it is real.

And the story is this: "everything happens."

Everything.

Because the universe is infinite, right? So everything, no matter how improbable it is, has to happen somewhere. Somewhere your brother didn't die. Somewhere your lover didn't die. Somewhere your teammate didn't betray you.

Somewhere you were happy.

But you don't really think big enough to understand the story.

He understands it. That one person who knows everything about you and still smiles at you. Because even Shizune does not know everything.

But Jiraiya does.

He can see it inside you. Because even now, decades later, he is still your precious teammate. This ability is the one that Orochimaru forsook when he left you: the right to understand and be in turn understood, and still be forgiven.

You understand Orochimaru very well. He understands you too.

But you will never forgive him, even if you still love him. Precious teammate, precious person. Part of your dream, like they all were.

But only Jiraiya is still here, and only he still thinks of the story.

Because everything happens somewhere.

Somewhere you healed Orochimaru's arms. Somewhere you and Dan have a thousand children and you wear your true face. Somewhere your brother is alive and you never met Dan. Somewhere Kabuto didn't interfere with your ruse and you killed someone you love.

Somewhere you never left. Jiraiya never left. Orochimaru never left.

Somewhere you are happy.

Here, though . . .

Here Orochimaru's arms are useless. Here Dan is dead and you have no children and almost no one knows what you actually look like. Here your brother is dead and you did meet Dan. Here Kabuto interfered and Orochimaru is still alive.

Here you left. Jiraiya left. Orochimaru left.

Here you are . . .

Here you are . . .

You are here.

And Naruto is the one who wears your necklaces and holds your loved ones' dream in his heart, and that Uchiha boy is going insane while everyone watches with curiosity, wondering when he will break, and that Haruno girl just sits around and cries because she can't do anything.

You wonder why she isn't fighting. But you can't blame her.

After all, did you follow Orochimaru? Did you ever try to reason with him, to get through to him, to stop him?

You knew he was falling, you and Jiraiya both. But you were selfish and did not care. Did not see what was really happening. Did not see that he needed you to save him until it was a thousand lifetimes too late; did not even see how you COULD have saved him until a thousand lifetimes later.

So now you're old (but you'll never admit that because you're not done with your life), and you're in a bar with Jiraiya, missing Orochimaru's darkly sardonic sense of humor and thinking about all the different ways your life turned out in infinity and how much you wish you were in any other version but your own.

So you're drunk, and Jiraiya is looking at you that way he does sometimes, all teasing aside. It's not a kind look, but it's not really cruel either.

It is . . . nostalgic? Regretful? Resigned?

No, that is not like Jiraiya.

It is . . .

Somewhere you never really understand this look and you die alone. Somewhere you DO understand, but are distracted a moment later and forget. Somewhere you just ignore it.

Only, in THIS somewhere, in this sometime . . . in this place that you are, you understand and reciprocate.

This look is hopeful. This look says, "I still believe that we can be happy." It is patient and quiet and not exactly like Jiraiya but not exactly not either.

A good drinking buddy is a valuable commodity- as long as he doesn't expect you to pick up the tab. So you leave him with the bill, and he actually pays it for once.

You also leave your room key and cancel his reservation on the way up.

Somewhere he doesn't come.

Somewhere he does, but leaves before morning.

Somewhere he stays forever.

But somewhere you both die tonight, somewhere you are enemies tonight, somewhere you are already lovers- and somewhere it is Orochimaru who you left the key with, and somewhere it is Dan, and somewhere it is even Shizune.

The only thing that matters, though, is that in this somewhere, you are ready to try loving someone for the second time in your life. Broken hearts don't exactly heal, but you kept the pieces of yours in good repair. You think they could work quite nicely, given a little patience and a bit of work.

You enter your room and change into a nightgown that would give any normal man a terminal nosebleed but would at best make Jiraiya grin that vacant grin of his.

You recognize his footsteps, and then there is a key in your door.

Somewhere, somehow, sometime, someplace, your life turned out exactly the way you wanted it to. You never really suffered and no one ever died on you. Your team stayed together and you and Dan had children, and they had an aunt on his side and an uncle on yours.

Somewhere your life was perfect.

But that doesn't mean that it was any better than this one.

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* an ending *

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. : somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence : .