Seasons of Their Time

To say that they were great from the very beginning would be a lie. They were just kids, handed their academy diplomas and a kunai by war far before their time. As a matter of fact, the first time Orochimaru met Jiraiya and Tsunade was a disaster. His words were awkward, while Tsunade's were graceless and Jiraiya's were hurried. Other than names, little personal information was exchanged and the newly-fledged Genin spent the better part of the day in uncomfortable silence, assessing one another as discreetly as they would an enemy, nervously tapping fingers too young, yet skilled enough to snip a lifeline in an instant.

It was then and there that Orochimaru decided, with all the wisdom of his six years, that nothing could possibly come of so mismatched a team. In Orochimaru's mind, this assumption didn't change until that blood-washed sunrise under the makeshift cover of the trees.

The heavy scent of lilac wafted through the air that day, sticking to Orochimaru's sweat and brain, making him feel sluggish and surreal. Through dirt-laden eyes, he forced himself to look at Jiraiya, bleeding and stretched out between the roots of the massive tree, while Tsunade, shiny with perspiration and red with blood, some hers, but mostly not, stubbornly pushed wave after wave of healing chakra in his body, adeptly mending broken skin and ruptured vessels.

It had been their first A-class mission, a big event in the career of any ninja, and it now threatened to be Jiraiya's last.

God, but the blood… There was just so much of it, everywhere. It couldn't all be Jiraiya's, could it? It was pooled all around his body, sickly sticky on his skin and in his hair, yet Tsunade had already closed all of his wounds. And the sky… so red… For a moment, it seemed as if Jiraiya had somehow bled the sunrise.

"Oi Orochimaru, don't tell me you're worried." The parched, grating voice cut into him like a dull blade. Jiraiya's words were followed by a few dry coughs and a smirk that seemed painfully forced.

"Shut up, you idiot! You should be resting!" Tsunade's harsh command lacked the conviction necessary to make a real impression. The medic was currently propped against the tree, exhaustion relaxing every limb in her body.

"What do you mean am I worried?" hissed Orochimaru, anger lacing every syllable. "That was my shot to take and you just go and jump in front of me like some damned hero! I thought you were dead!" The words surprised everyone, including Orochimaru, but more surprising was Jiraiya's response.

"What are you so worked up about? After all, that's what comrades do!"

In the spring of their time, they were teammates…

The summer of Tsunade's twelfth birthday was unbearably hot, even by Konoha standards, and it announced itself long too. The days stretched lazily and sometimes it would be so warm and humid, that she would feel like she was drowning on air.

One such day found the trio lounging on a shady patch of rock, noses up in the sky. It was actually a well-hidden depression under the Hokage monument, deep enough to stay cool, while affording them a perfect view of the sky. Jiraiya had discovered it a few years ago, during one of his self-appointed "data-gathering" missions. It had provided them with relief from the summer heat ever since.

There they would lay – Tsunade, Orochimaru and Jiraiya – watching the clouds in blissful silence, until their brains would solidify once more and they would crawl out from under their rock, like some fat salamanders out for a stretch.

Tsunade loved those moments, when they were too exhausted to bicker, too relaxed to put limits to what they shared in their conversation, moments when they could let their guard down and say anything. It was in one such moment that the question seeped lazily past her lips, not quite a yawn or a sigh.

"Hey Orochimaru, Jiraiya, are we friends?"

"I guess so."

"Seems like it."

The replies she received were just as effortless as her question. Tsunade smiled, tasting the moment.

In the summer of their time, they were friends…

Being the last to leave Konohagakure always struck Jiraiya as odd, yet he could never imagine it any other way, no matter how much he wanted to. What shocked him the most, however, was Tsunade leaving first. She had always been so grounded, so rooted to Konoha, and it hurt to know that neither he nor Orochimaru had been enough in the end to keep her there.

Orochimaru's sudden defection hurt in a wholly different way. They were teammates, friends. He should have seen through Orochimaru's mask, should have known something was wrong and reached out to quench the burning darkness in the other man's heart. Should have, but didn't… couldn't…

It was only fitting, Jiraiya thought, for him to leave now, because there was nothing familiar left in Konoha to hold him there. And so, like leaves caught in the autumn breeze, they danced away from their home, one by one, each going their separate way.

For years Jiraiya allowed himself to be carried by time, swaying here and there, but never stopping long enough to remember her eyes or his smiles, until, having been struck with a particularly bad case of writers' block and encouraged by a particularly good bottle of sake, Jiraiya tried writing out the story of the Legendary Three. That night, he found out what hurt the most, sitting on a rickety table, in a shady inn, pen poised and paralysed over a pristine sheet of paper.

In the autumn of their time, they were strangers…

The setting sun paints the battlefield red, stretching shadow-fingers groping for the three bodies laying side-by-side, barely breathing, yet perfectly aware and peaceful in a sea of their own blood. It seeps freely from their wounds now, three separate streams flowing into one. It cakes their clothes, marks their faces and their hands, gathers under their nails, yet they don't notice it, can't spare the time to be bothered by it.

"Hey Jiraiya… this sunset… it reminds me of Under the Light." Orochimaru's voice is strained, quiet.

"You… read it?" Disbelief gives Jiraiya the strength to turn his head slightly, grasping for a glimpse of his once-teammates.

"I read all of your books."

"Did you really think we wouldn't… you idiot?" Tsunade's near-whisper caresses like the wind and suddenly they find themselves choking on tear-flavoured laughter.

It's snowing… do you see it? And nothing matters, but this moment, as one last breath is uttered, one last hello, one last fairwell…

In the winter of their time, they are together…

Author's note: Man, I've been dying to write this for ages. I love the Sannin, I do, and I almost made myself cry writing this.