Author's Note: I suppose this could be regarded as a prequel to my story "A Fox and a Shark Walk into a Bar," but it isn't, really. Some of my perceptions of the sannin remain the same, but beyond that, this is just a simple 'when they were young' thing. And in regards to my longer Naruto story, I'm kind of disappointed. By the number of reviews the story got, it appears only two people are reading it anymore. And above all, I am a feedback monger. It's pretty fun to write, but the best part is the reviews I receive, and quite frankly spending over two hours on a chapter only two people read isn't worth it. The only kind of writing people really do for themselves is one-shots, which seems to be what I'm going to work on for a while. If it's the slight slashiness in the last chapter that drove people off, keep in mind no one even got to kissing, and the next chapter I had planned had a yaoi quotient of zero, and a fight scene to boot. But whatever. If no one wants to read it, why should I bother writing it?

When Tsunade had imagined her shinobi career as a child, young and naïve and completely convinced in her own invincibility, this scene had never really entered into the picture.

Of course, some would argue that at thirteen, she was still a child, but she had become a genin at eight years old, and a shinobi's life is no place for the truly innocent. Even if she still did live with her parents.

The weather was miserable, to put it lightly. A constant downpour of rain and harsh winds had driven herself and her 'boys' (the village's nickname for them, not hers) into a small dank, dark hovel in the ground that had a lot of slime and was short on comfort. There had been a rather more appealing cave a few hundred yards back, but it had been far too visible, and the Mist hunter-nins pursuing them would have checked there first.

Things weren't looking too hot. Jiraiya's breathing was loud in her ear, short and gasping in a way that let her know he was in pain, but was trying to hide it. The needles were hardly going to kill him, but the toxin on them might. And any chakra use would alert those who hunted them to their position. Damn it.

Orochimaru was quiet, which was hardly unusual. Orochimaru never said anything unless prompted by Sarutobi-sensei, at least around strangers. He was more than willing to talk when it was just the three of them alone, in the woods, but this introverted nature had led clients to believe more than once that it was Jiraiya who in fact led their little group. Tsunade snorted. Hardly. While the idiot did on occasion have a good idea, for the most part he was headstrong and relied too much on his instincts. It was in fact the quiet, dark-haired, too-effeminate Orochimaru who commanded their missions, in his own reserved fashion. Even if he was sarcastic when his temper was raised by Jiraiya's antics.

((Some commanding would be good right about now.)) Not that it was going to happen. They were about as safe as they were ever going to get, here in the middle of god-knows-where, in a storm that made the spring rains of Konoha look like a morning drizzle. Tsunade hated the Land of the Mist, mainly because she hated being wet and cold. Also because Mist shinobi had the best counters to the Leaf's fire jutsus. Which was probably why they had been chosen for this retrieval mission to begin with, seeing as Orochimaru was a bookworm and knew enough obscure jutsus to put a lot of Council members to shame.

It still sucked to be here. Having Orochimaru, the most brilliant shinobi to come out of Konoha in thirty years on her team didn't help when he was thirteen, wet, tired, chakra-exhausted, and hungry, like the rest of them. Talent meant squat when it came up against experience and what seemed to be a nigh inexhaustible chakra supply. What scared Tsunade most was that she had most definitely heard the squad leader order his men to bring them back alive. While this spoke well for the toxin on those needles currently embedded in Jiraiya's leg, it still left the most disturbing question of why the Mist would bother. She didn't have to think very hard.

Orochimaru: genius. Tsunade: granddaughter of First Hokage. Jiraiya: pretty useless, but he could still be used to manipulate his teammates. Still, it seemed they were going to an awful amount of trouble for three little kids, two of whom were chuunins and the other a jounin of only a few weeks.

Orochimaru stood up. The bridge of his nose was furrowed, which was never a good sign, and Tsunade tried to yank him again below eye level, but he disappeared into the treetops before she could get a good grip on his kimono, which was a stupid thing to wear on missions, but he still insisted on it, patched and frayed as it was.

Tsunade cursed silently. Jiraiya opened one bleary eye at her. His drowsiness attested to her thought that the stuff that laced the needles was more likely sedative than poison, but his diluted pupils still worried her.

"Where'd the genius get to, Tsunade-chan?"

"Don't know. Stay still and shut up. We need you awake so we can move if they find us."

They waited, but for several minutes, they heard nothing. And a few minutes was an eternity to a shinobi. Then, something moved behind them. Without thinking, Tsunade had a kunai at the intruder's throat, and was startled to see Orochimaru. He looked exhausted, which explained why she had heard him to begin with. When the jounin was alert, she often didn't notice him until he decided to say something.

To say the least, the boy looked terrible. His already pale face had gone sheet white, and his green kimono was darkened by something that was definitely not rain. But he held a scroll in one hand, and a blood-drenched kunai in the other, though the downpour was already washing the weapon clean.

"I got it." Then he fainted. Tsunade caught him before he hit the ground, and cursed again. One boy drugged, the other wounded, and enemy shinobi all around them. Or not, as Tsunade discovered, when she moved her chakra awareness, fine-tuned from years of healer training, up another notch. The four presences that had been tracking them for the past several hours were gone. Tsunade felt a chill go down her spine as she looked into the face of the boy in her arms, pale and beautiful to the point he transcended gender, slender and frail-seeming in her embrace. But he was anything but. No mere boy could take down four hunter-nin with no chakra and no weapon but a kunai, even he was badly hurt in the process.

Of course, being a supreme genius didn't stop Orochimaru from being abysmally stupid. Like now, when for whatever reason he decided some scroll (a piece of paper, for god's sake!) was more important than their lives, even though getting the thing had been their mission to begin with. Of course, she couldn't blame him for his nature. Orochimaru had always been that way, hating most of the population of Konoha for their narrow-mindedness but loving the village all the same. So she started in on him first. Now that the enemy was gone, at least for the moment, a few hours of sleep would hardly hurt Jiraiya.

Tsunade made sure to lug both of them to the nicer cave when she was done, where she could make up a decent fire so they wouldn't all stupidly die of pneumonia. Even though she was tired, it wasn't really a strain on her, though it was kind of awkward. Besides her healing skills, it had always been a point of pride with Tsunade that she could hit harder and carry more than both of the boys put together. She had to have something over them, or else she could have never kept up with the jutsu-fiend and the insane maverick.

And while she roasted what little food they had left over the fire, she waited for her teammates to wake up.

SWITCH

It was Jiraiya who awoke first, right after the rain began to recede a little and the light in the sky alerted Tsunade that it would be dawn soon. Of course it was Jiraiya. He got through everything fine and was huskier than Orochimaru to boot.

"I smell dinner. You aren't burning it, are you Tsunade-chan?"

"I'm not burning breakfast, no." At that, Jiraiya cursed, though not silently, as Tsunade had been doing for the past several hours.

"How long have I been out?"

"Long enough to miss pretty much everything. Orochimaru took out the hunter-nins." Another curse. Jiraiya had been extremely jealous of the more talented Orochimaru when they had gone to the academy together, and later when they were assigned to the same genin team. It had the jealousy had faded over time, mainly because Orochimaru never rubbed it in unless Jiraiya brought it up first, and because Orochimaru had taught Jiraiya more than a few useful jutsus, as Jiraiya was terrible with anything that resembled the basics. In return, Jiraiya had tried to teach Orochimaru how to socialize and flirt with girls. He had failed miserably on both accounts, but the experience had given the two boys a closeness that transcended friendship. Not lovers, of course. Tsunade wrinkled her nose at the thought. They were much too young for that. But they had worked together for the past five years, even though it had been forever since they had all passed the chuunin exams, when most of the teams were split up. There were advantages to having the Hokage as your sensei.

Closer than brothers or no, whenever Orochimaru did something spectacular, the temperamental Jiraiya was quick to revert.

"That showoff." Jiraiya reached for the roasting vegetables, but his hands were slapped away. He shot a hurt look at his blonde comrade.

"Tsunade-chan. . ."

"Once you start in on the food, there won't be any left for Orochimaru. And he needs it more than you. I took the last of his chakra reserves in healing him." Jiraiya huffed, but the concerned look he sent their unconscious teammate said a lot more than anything else could have. It was rare the raven-haired jutsu-fiend was hurt. Mostly it was Jiraiya wrapped in bandages when a mission was over. The fact that their leader was wounded proved how close a shave it had been.

They sat in silence around the fire as the sun rose. Tsunade envied Jiraiya his short hair. Her wet mane was making her shiver from the cold.

Finally, Orochimaru stirred. "Mmmm. . ."

"Took you long enough to wake up, stupid."

". . .food?" Tsunade sighed. Was that all boys ever thought about? But she obligingly took one of the roasting vegetable sticks off the fire, and sent a significant glance at Jiraiya. For once he noticed, and obligingly got Orochimaru into a sitting position. The wounded shinobi chewed in silence. When the last of the roasted vegetables were gone, he promptly fell back asleep. Jiraiya snorted.

"Jerk. Didn't even say thank you."

"You don't even say it when you're conscious, hypocrite."

They broke camp. It would have been safer to travel at night, but they were out of food, and hunting would have been too visible to shinobi looking for the thieves who killed the Mist trackers. Tsunade carried the scroll. Jiraiya carried Orochimaru.

Jiraiya was still sluggish from the drugs, Orochimaru was unconscious, and Tsunade had a head cold. As it had been last night, they were tired, hungry, and wet, none of which would change until they got back to Konoha, which was journey that would take several days, even longer if Orochimaru didn't wake up soon. They were being pursued by god knows how many shinobi who wanted to kill them, and the mist was messing up Tsunade's sense of direction. For once, Tsunade didn't know if they were going to get back home alive.

SWITCH

It was a week later they finally got back to Konoha, over a fortnight since they had left. The mission was supposed to have taken five days. In the interim, Tsunade had chopped off all of her hair, Orochimaru had been forced to throw away his old kimono (under much protest), and at one point they had impersonated a group of young lords for two days to throw off the trail of the Mist ninja who still wouldn't leave them alone. Sarutobi-sensei was overjoyed to see them. For the past several days, they had been thought dead, killed in battle during their mission. Tsunade, after she threw the scroll full force at the back of Sarutobi-sensei's head, told him in no uncertain terms that it didn't matter one way or the other, because Orochimaru, Jiraiya, and herself had agreed that being a shinobi sucked and they had decided to join a band of roaming players.

It was a joke, even if on some level, Tsunade wished it were true. Still, they did leave the village for several months afterward. Tsunade to think, Jiraiya to meet girls who weren't aware of his reputation, and Orochimaru to learn jutsus not known in Konoha. They left together, of course. Whether they would come back together, Tsunade didn't know. Maybe she would leave the village. It had been such a close thing. She had almost lost her two best friends.

A shinobi's life was hard. Tsunade wasn't sure she was ready for the exact implications of the well-known proverb. Orochimaru already knew it. His parents had died two years ago during an attack by the Sand. Orochimaru had been on a mission at the time.

They weren't his real parents, of course. No one knew who they were. But Orochimaru had been quiet for weeks afterward.

A shinobi's life was the tool of his master. Tsunade wasn't sure she wanted to be a shinobi anymore. Because she valued life more than a scroll. More than anything else. If she hadn't been there that night, with her healing talent, Orochimaru would have died. And that was why, in the end, she stayed. And later regretted it.

A shinobi's life was filled with pain. And Tsunade was no exception. She just took it harder. That's all.