This was a repayment for the talented livejournal user touchedvenus - who made me a set of icons and requested an Orochimaru/Tsunade drabble in return.

Ten thousand candles down burned in front of him and all Orochimaru could think was This shouldn't be happening...

Two days after the invasion that triggered the end of the first war in Konoha's short history every man, woman and child capable of standing was at attention beneath the cliff that would one day be the Hokage monument. Standing in the very foremost ranks of the fledgling village's ninjas and civilians, Orochimaru heard Tsunade take a hitched breath and squeezed her hand tighter.

It was just the two of them; Jiraiya was still in a coma. They were saying he wouldn't wake up, that he'd bled too much into his brain, that the wounds were just too much for the sturdy little six year old to take.

Orochimaru thought they were morons. If they were worried about brain damage they didn't need to apply those concerns to Jiraiya. He could breathe on his own, and he'd get up on his own, and his simple, stupid brain would be perfectly fine.

Tsunade didn't seem to share those views, and was crying into her skirt at Jiraiya's bedside when he went to fetch her for the funeral they stood at now. As the Shodai's granddaughter and heir to his house she must be here. He hadn't looked at Jiraiya as he pulled her with silent insistance from the room - and told himself it was because he'd see the loudmouth's blustering face more than he wanted to soon enough. There had been a hundred fatalities before the Hokages could do anything to finish off the invasion force and lose their lives in the process... Jiraiya would not become number one hundred and one.

She'd come quietly, after squeezing Jiraiya's limp hand, and walked silent with him to the ceremony as the sun fell beneath the treetops and the stars scattered their light above them.

And now here they were. Tsunade was meant to stand alone, to the front of her family as the sucessor to her grandfather's ninja talents. But she'd refused to let go of Orochimaru's hand so the two of them were standing here and Orochimaru was wondering about the feasibility of one-handed ninjutsu seals: because he didn't think the one holding hers would ever work properly again. Tsunade had a tough grip, and it might save his life one day but right now it was breaking his fingers.

Her very pregnant mother was standing behind them, her bulging belly hovering uncomfortably above Orochimaru's head but he ignored it as best he could. It wouldn't do to be childish here. This was the funeral of the Shodaime and Nidaime Hokages and it befitted everyone to behave with solemn dignity. At least, that's what Sarutobi-sensei had said to him this afternoon.

Sarutobi-sensei was the one doing all the talking, his teammates on either side of him. He would be made Hokage soon, as he was always meant to be. He was saying things Orochimaru didn't really hear, because his attention was focussed on Tsunade's crushing grip on his fingers and the tears he knew she was forcing back in her bright brown eyes. He found he could watch their sensei say things, do things, set the fire to pyres that would carry Konoha's two greatest men - two unparalleled brothers - up into the ash laden sky together... but he couldn't feel anything. It was as if this was... he didn't know what this was like. He felt cold and dead and empty inside and didn't know why.

The feelings eased a little suddenly, when Sarutobi-sensei looked at the two of them looking up at him, and they both saw nothing but rock-steady intelligence and dedication in those eyes. A certainty of what would happen now that gave their sensei's young face the force of wisdom. Sarutobi was meant to become Hokage. He'd known it since he was a child Orochimaru's age, been told it by his senseis who's bodies he'd just released to the sky in the fire they'd fostered in him.

Orochimaru wondered what that was, to know your future and never doubt it. Sarutobi-sensei was so sure of everything, and Orochimaru wondered at that greatly. Marvelled at it too. He had always been so very unsure of his own future, what he would become if he ever got the chance to grow. People said he was special, a genius, and that he would become something amazing but nobody said what. He wanted to know. He needed to know.

Tsunade's vision followed the streams of ash-laden smoke into the night sky, and Orochimaru watched the light of ten thousand candles dance in her eyes. He'd never seen her look so sad, so dark, so breakable. If he'd been older, and understood himself better he'd have said he loved her like that; but for now he just thought he'd never felt closer to anyone in his life and immediately tried to unthink it.

Tsunade wasn't crying, but she was gripping his hand a little tighter in spasms to the beat of her family's stifled sobs. Orochimaru tightened his hand on hers and suddenly understood something. He let his eyes fall to the ten thousand candles serried before him like the lives of Konoha were behind him. He felt himself between two worlds with Tsunade beside him, and he felt himself realizing something that would make all of this worth it. Make this a lesson he could learn from.

Very carefully he said it to himself...

If I'm Hokage I can make it so this doesn't happen anymore.

Picturing Tsunade beside him, and Jiraiya in the hospital, and Sarutobi-sensei refusing to shed a tear he thought he could make himself good enough...

I can protect all of us... I can make all of us live forever.

Beside him, Tsunade finally realized how much she loved the people in her life. How lost she was withoutone of them set light to the solidarity she knew with the rest. Even the most distant and difficult of them was standing beside her with his slender fingers gripping her soft ones and it occurred to her to glance to her teammate and take in his face.

He didn't see her turn to him, take in the focus and intent in his face and wonder what it meant. Tsunade saw he didn't have any signs of crying or upset on his face, but she thought maybe the purple trails tattooed like tears from each of his eyes said everything for him. She felt a twinge when she saw the candlelight didn't reflect off his pale gold eyes as he stared into their fire, it didn't even seem to touch them.

But she was touching him now, she was squeezing his hand hard enough to break it and she wasn't going to let go.

I'm not going to lose you Orochimaru, or Jiraiya either. I won't let it happen.

Tsunade believed in herself, in her strength to overcome whatever may come. Her grandfather had always said that was what made her strong like him and she had to believe that now more than ever before.

As the candles danced and the twin funeral pyres flared their dying light into the black sky; she reached into her pocket and pulled out the only thing she'd been given of her grandfather. His necklace.

Her free hand was shaking a little but she looped it over her neck and felt the stone slowly warm against her skin.

Later she asked Orochimaru how it looked on her, as they waited outside the hospital for Sarutobi-sensei to bring Jiraiya out, and he'd blinked slowly at it and said it looked like it had always been there. He didn't know what it was, what it was supposed to mean, but that was what he said. It made Tsunade feel a little strange.

But it was just a necklace, nothing else, so she smiled and just on impulse hugged him tight and asked what was in his study scroll - and grinned mischeviously as he tried to squiggle out her grasp. He hissed in familiar soft annoyance and said it was a summoning jutsu and could she not do that it was weird and hampered his ability to educate himself.

Tsunade didn't listen and Orochimaru didn't want to admit he was the smallest bit glad of that.