The Habit

Tsunade squinted down at the woman sitting next to her. Even with the height the bar stool she was perched on lent her, Sakura was definitively shorter than her mentor. It made the inebriated blonde snort. Her protege was so wide eyed and innocent, down to her physical appearance. It made her feel proud...and old. Mostly just old, though, she decided as she raised her glass to her painted lips again. Once she'd swallowed and tamped down the familiar burn that ensued, Tsunade grumbled, "How does Lover-boy feel about you being out here with me?"

Shrugging in a manner that didn't convey much of what she really felt, the pinkette replied, "Grunted, didn't say much." She sighed and gulped at her soda with a vengeance before summarizing for good measure. "Not a lot of response to speak of, really. Internalizes everything, which is totally unhealthy. The usual."

The older woman nodded, her toffee colored irises fixated on the bar in front of her. "Must be frustrating." At her student's bland look, she specified, "Having that doctrine in psychoanalysation and falling for the most stoic beast even someone my age has ever seen."

A pretty, if not tired smile fell over the young doctor's face at the thought as she laughed and nodded. Sakura seemed to be distracted for a moment by thoughts of her long term boyfriend before refocusing and quipping, "Not like you picked an easy case for yourself. Jiraiya's hardly a qualifies as a textbook example of maturity or morality." When her teacher's shoulders sagged and her drinking pace increased steeply, Sakura prodded, "He's in town, isn't he? That's why you called?"

Tapping a manicured nail against the grain of the surface below her fingertip, Tsunade redirected the conversation. "If you're busy you can go. I just--"

"You know I'm staying, Shishu." Green eyes filled with amusement and a bit of empathy as Sakura eased the bottle of liquor away from the distraught female.

Left with only the three-fourths filled glass she was gripping, the elder physician slowed her intake and pouted subtly. After a moment of swirling condensation on the wooden surface next to her drink, Tsunade relented. "Yes...he's back, that is."

"At the expense of sounding Freudian, how do you feel about that?"

Shooting Sakura a frank look, Tsunade levelled, "Shitty." She knew from experience that a one word answer wasn't going to be enough for the perusal of the brilliant doctor seated next to her, but it was a start. At length, she added, "We didn't precisely separate on friendly terms."

Sakura hummed thoughtfully. She knew about the relationship (or lack there of) between Tsunade and Jiraiya in general terms, but the specific events she knew in detail were few and far between. After all, most of their life together had taken place long before she'd been the enigmatic blonde's pupil. Deciding to start from the beginning, the young woman baited, "How did you two meet?"

Tsunade pursed her lips, eyes distant as she thought back. "College. He was majoring in Creative Writing and working his way through the sororities like it was a sport. I was more or less living in the lab and library, alternatively." A lopsided smile spread as she recounted, "He was cruising through the library a few days into fall semester my sophomore year, on his way to a hot date in the Stacks, no doubt...I was studying for an organic chemistry quiz when he tripped his way into my life. Literally. Caught one of his ridiculous sandals on the carpet. He insists on wearing flip flops year round, you know. Even in the snow." Propping her chin onto her palm, she continued, "I was stuck trying to balance a complex sugar molecular model when I heard him stumble. I must have laughed because he looked up...and he just pulled up a chair across from me and started spouting poetry. Some Shakespeare, Frost, maybe Milton if I remember correctly. I think he was a third of his way through the Sonnets when I finally punched him."

Something in the rapt expression on Tsunade's face told Sakura that she did in fact remember correctly. Her well trained eye could see clearly that her mentor was enjoying retelling the tale and had little trouble recalling it. Perhaps she thought on it often? More determined than ever, she steered the conversation once more. "He's pretty famous in his own right. Did he ever read you anything of his? I hear that his early stuff is some of his best."

A throaty laugh fell from Tsunade's throat. "Don't let him hear you say so. He thinks it's all sentimental garbage. Figures that his career as a P.I. and erotic adventure novelist is much manlier." The wrinkle that developed between her eyes as she spoke belied what she thought of that. "He used to call me his muse. D'ya think that means he considers me a sentimental old waste of time, too?"

Sakura felt her experienced heart lurch at the faint tinge of vulnerability in her teacher's voice. She carefully considered her words before she returned, "I hardly think he'd go out of his way to see you if he did. Even after what? A few decades? He visits at least every couple of years, if not more often. Why do you think that is?"

"Habit." Tsunade felt the word slip past her lips with practiced ease. It was her old standby. Of course that was why he'd still come back to the city to drop in for a few days before returning to his whirlwind adventures. His international skirt chasing. "Why else?"

Smoothing a lock of rosy hair behind her ear, Sakura ventured, "Maybe he cares for you. Genuinely. Can't that be a possibility?"

An unladylike sound barked from the busty blonde. "Hardly. The only thing Jiraiya's ever genuinely cared for was his libido."

Sakura paused before venturing, "And you resent that."

One of Tsunade's shoulders jumped in a half-hearted response to the question. The blonde seemed to consider for a moment, rolling her glass between her hands, before settling on what she wanted to say. "I know him better than anyone else alive. Honestly," she sighed heavily, "I think he resents that. Who Jiraiya is and who Jiraiya's decided he is are two completely different things. Problem is, I'm the only one who knows it." Dropping her head to the bar, Tsunade mumbled, "His visits are an exercise in masochism."

As she placed a consoling hand on her teacher-cum-patient's back, Sakura cajoled, "A little like these trips to the bars are for you, hmm? Maybe that's why you asked me to tag along this time." She smiled down at the blonde as she joked, "Maybe you sought council because subconsciously you acknowledge your need for assistance."

Flapping a limp hand at her protege, Tsunade blustered, "That drivel doesn't feel half as gratifying on this end." After sharing a brief laugh, the older woman asked slowly, "What should I do if he..."

Green eyes filled with more maturity and wisdom than her years would suggest as the pinkette advised, "Go home and wait. When he shows up...tell him how you feel. I think you both owe yourselves at least that. You've avoided the core of the issue long enough."

Tsunade straightened her posture and felt the alcohol she'd imbibed fizzle through her system as she pried, "And that is?"

"You love him, obviously."

Her chic, well-loved apartment had never been so stifling. For what was at least the fifteenth time in as many minutes, Tsunade compulsively rearranged the texts on her coffee table. Catching herself with a start as she adjusted a potted orchid, the blonde stopped just short of slapping herself in embarrassment. She was nervous. Shaky hands, sweaty palms, awkward kid on a first date nervous about seeing a man. Jiraiya no less.

Breathing deeply through her nose, the jittery woman seated herself on a sleek love seat only to jump up as the doorbell sounded. Her heart felt like it might burst from her chest as she pressed a hand to it and padded slowly toward the foyer. When she reached the small receiving area, she stopped for a moment to check her reflection in a heavy mirror hanging on the right hand wall. A flushed, wide-eyed version of herself stared back. Thinning her lips in annoyance at her perceived overreaction, she nearly jumped out of her skin when the bell rang again. Digging her bare toes into the plush carpet below her feet and setting her features, Tsunade turned resolutely toward the door.

She ignored the fine tremor of her hand as she eased the heavy panel open to reveal a tall, white-haired figure lounging against the jam. As soon as he got a clear look at her, the man grinned rakishly and boomed, "Ah, my apologies, ma'am! I seem to have the wrong address! I'm looking for a cynical old hag 'bout my age, but you don't look a day over twenty!" Dipping his enormous upper body across the threshold, he laughed uproariously at his own little joke and swiped out to gather the frozen Tsunade toward him. He seemed to sober when the usually acerbic female failed to rise to any of his barbs. Releasing her rigid body from his bear hug and holding her at arms' length, Jiraiya adopted a concerned tone. "You alright, Old Girl?"

The blonde blinked slowly and said reflexively, "I thought I didn't look a day over twenty?"

A smile that threatened to split the rugged man's face returned and he broke out into bawdy laughter once more. "That's my Nade!" He stooped to grab a traveller's rucksack with so many patches and stamps that it was nearly impossible to tell its original khaki color before stepping inside. "Mind putting me up for a week or so before this sailor ships out again?"

Staring into his dimpled grin, Tsunade wondered if it was even physically possible to refuse. Rather than make an attempt, she smirked a little and shook her head. "You know I don't, Jiraiya. Same room as always. Tea?"

An enthusiastic, "Hell yes!" echoed back to her as he disappeared down the hall toward the guest room. Crossing her arms and plodding toward the kitchen, Tsunade considered what she was going to do for an entire week. She'd never felt so awkward around Jiraiya before. As her hands prepared the tea with absent mind, she reasoned that she'd never fancied herself in love with him before, either.

When the weight of his head fell onto her shoulder, Tsunade was sure he knocked ten years off her life. His chuckle, as close as it was to her ear, made her cheeks redden as she clutched her chest. Inhaling deeply, Jiraya's voice was muffled by her hair as he asked, "So wha's the matter with you anyway? You seem...tense." As he spoke the final word, he pressed his thumbs into the dimples at the base of her spine. He worked the hem of her blouse up until it was hiked at her waist, massaging his way as he went.

Tsunade felt her eyes droop to half mast as his large hands worked their way up her tired, knotted back. She sighed dreamily as she felt all the tension Sakura's words had instilled in her drain with the touch of his nimble fingers. It wasn't until she felt her head loll back onto his broad shoulder that she realized she had melted backward into his embrace. Jiraiya didn't seem to mind, however, as he rounded off his massage at her shoulders before reaching around her limp form to turn off the range. "Tea can wait," he breathed.

An instant later, a languid Tsunade was swept up by her long time lover's capable arms and toted into the conjoined living room. He settled them onto the couch, propping his feet onto the coffee table and arranging her over his lap in short order. His thick fingers found her temples and began to rub away the years of worry and stress that had accumulated there since he'd last held her. Her honey blonde locks slipped through his fingers with a familiar ease that made Jiraiya's chest constrict. He was silent, though, letting the silky mass slither over and under his hardened digits as she dozed in his grasp.

He was surprised when she spoke, her voice thick with sleep and contentment. "Why...why don't you recite to me anymore?" The question was so drawn out and groggy that he hardly understood it, but when it registered, Jiraiya felt his stomach turn strangely. It had been a long, long time since he'd done what she was asking. Exhaling with a deep throated chuckle, he replied a little too nonchalantly, "I hardly remember anything worth hearing, Nade."

One of her hands (her beautiful, capable hand he thought) caught his and she murmured, "Anything. Please." She settled her face into his palm as she confessed, "I miss...I miss it. It reminds me of when we..."

Before she could say something to damn them both, Jiraiya splayed his fingers to comb through her hair once more as he began, "Out through the fields and woods and over the walls I have wended; I have climbed the hills of view and looked at the world, and descended; I have come by the highway home, and lo, it is ended." He laughed softly and seemed to search for the next lines in the back of his mind. Finally he began again in the rich voice that he reserved for poetry, "Ah, when to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason to go with the drift of things, and bow and accept the end..." His dark eyes met her watering ones for a long moment as he whispered the final line. "Of a love or a season?"

Before he could so much as open his mouth to somehow cheapen the moment they'd just shared, Tsunade surged upward. Her lips locked over his for a fierce instant and he was so waylaid by her kiss that her question against his mouth nearly went unanswered. "Tennyson?" she queried. Jiraiya grasped her hips, rolling them forward and chuckled against her chin as he countered, "Frost, love. You always inspire Frost from me."

A raspy giggle fell from Tsunade at his words. Her eyes were bright as she smiled up at him and for an instant they were twenty-somethings in love again. "Now I remember why I used to hate that."

Finding the spot on her neck that made her squirm so delightfully, Jiraiya pressed a hard kiss there and smirked as she moaned. "Hated what, Nade?"

The busty female pressed down into his lap as she grinned at his strained features, "How philosophical and enigmatic you get when you recite to me."

A toothy grin lit up his boyish face as he panted, "You give an old man...too much credit."

He arched into her touch as she hummed against the curve of his jaw, "Or maybe you give yourself too little."

A hearty gale of laughter rose from him at that. Jiraiya gathered her face between his square hands as he teased, "You're too kind, Old Girl. No need for the flattery, For you," his voice dropped to a liquefying pitch as he swept a thumb over her kiss swollen lips and rumbled, "I'm easy."

Tsunade couldn't stop the watering of her eyes as he pressed her into the cushions of the couch and propped himself above her. Strong fingers swept at the invisible tears as his tender voice echoed down into her aching chest. "What's this look for?"

A hiccup caught in her throat and thinned her voice as she replied, "I-I'm just...remembering."

Jiraya groaned sympathetically to her response. "Precisely why I live in the present, love. Much less to regret there."

Her long fingers fanned over his cheekbones as she whispered, "Do you ever regret anything?"

He had never looked older to her than he did as he replied, "More than you'll ever know." Her eyes filled up with all the things she felt in a way that made his jaded heart want to break. So rather than pour out meaningless ramblings about the course of love or the hauntings of memory, Jiraiya kissed the only woman he'd ever loved with everything he was worth. The following hours were a blur of time honed touches and comfortable hands making more memories for the times apart to come.

It wasn't until misty, pre-dawn light was creeping in from the window above the bed they'd eventually made their way to that Tsunade did the inevitable. She started one of The Fights. One moment she'd been tracing a stark black service tattoo on his bicep and the next she was letting words flow unchecked from her kiss loosened lips. "This is why your writing changed so, isn't it?" She should have stopped, been alerted, when the muscled back she was pressed against went rigid. Instead she trailed on nostalgically, "You went to war and made your way through the ranks...I was so proud of you. My Renaissance man, I used to say. Damn best at everything he tried...and then that snake--"

She didn't recognize his voice as he flinched away from her. It was firm and impersonal and unlike any he'd ever directed at her. "You don't know what you're talking about."

It stung so that she couldn't stop her retort. "Don't I? My best friend left a loving, poetry spouting man and came ba--" Tsunade didn't get to complete her thought as Jiraiya moved more quickly than she'd ever seen a man react. She would have been terrified, pinned and vulnerable as she was, had it been anyone but Jiraiya hovering above her.

The scars that trailed from below his eyes to follow the curve of his cheeks on either side were stark against his flushed face, lending a primal element to his smoldering eyes and wild hair. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"You're right. I don't." The words were nearly spat as Tsunade railed, "I wouldn't know, would I? You would never tell me what happened. You just took off and never came home. That's why--"

A bass growl tore from the large male above her as he snarled, "I don't want to hear about Him, Tsunade."

"Why? Because I loved him?" Her tears obscured her vision and blinded Tsunade from the pained expression that broke over her lover's face at the other man's mention. Instead she sobbed, "You always hated Dan! You weren't e-even th-there when-n he d-died, you b-bastard!" A weak, half-hearted punch did little to dislodge him as she began to bawl. "W-where were y-ou when I n-needed you-u? Pa-aris? Haiti? B-bermu-uda?"

Her rant was cut short as Jiraiya dipped into her personal space even further to snarl, "No, Tsunade. I was passed out right here, in town, in a pool of liquor--hovering somewhere between plotting to ruin your wedding and trying to forget that you existed." When she turned wet, uncomprehending eyes up at him he quoted scathingly, "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." A self loathing, mirthless laugh rattled in his massive chest. He stared with unfathomable expression down to her face as he stood, unembarrassed of his nakedness as he made to stalk from the room.

He paused at the doorway and jerked to a stop. After a tense moment he spoke lowly, roughly, as if it agitated him to voice the events he was retelling. "It was my last mission with the Kage Ops Squad before I got to come home. I'm not even supposed to tell you that name, you know." He shrugged and Tsunade watched his bronze back ripple in response. "We got dropped deep behind enemy lines doin what was more or less a suicide mission. Almost made it out unscathed, too...till Orochimaru turned out to be a double agent. Things went sour when he crossed his benefactors one too many times...Got us all captured, tortured...left for dead." A world-weary sigh seemed to shake Jiraiya to the bones. He ran a finger over his face as he added, "That where I got these, but you know that." For a long, agonizing minute, he was silent. "I...I used to believe the best of anyone." He mopped a hand of his face as he stared out into the empty apartment beyond where he stood.

A gut wrenching feeling flooded Tsunade as he spoke. She'd finally heard what she'd wondered about for decades only to find a hollow victory at long last. Her eyes were screwed shut and she was listening for the bang of the front door as he walked away...presumably forever...when he spoke again.

"You." His voice gave out for the first time since she'd known him as he turned toward her and explained, "I thought of you while I was laying out there in that hellhole, bleeding to death. I just wanted to come home to you."

Tsunade felt a ripping, throbbing sensation start in her chest and fan out through her abdomen at his words. A muffled thump made her sit up and seek out his form with worry. She found him slumped to the floor, his back to the door jam as he began again, addressing the ceiling, "I promised myself that when I got home--if I got home...we'd get married." A sad, calloused with time smile found his rugged face. "But then I got off that plane and saw you in that little white sundress with your long, long blonde hair and I couldn't." His handsome, strong features creased with regret and remembrance. "I wasn't the same man that fell in love with you, Nade. You deserved better."

", no, no." She murmured reverently as she began to pick herself up from the linen strewn bed. Why hadn't any of this clicked for her before?

"Then you met that boy...Dan." The name felt foreign and bitter on his tongue, Jiraiya thought. He'd never used it before. "And he was everything I couldn't be for you anymore." Thumping his head back against the solid framing behind him, he confessed, "But I was too selfish. I didn't want to watch you walk down the aisle so I...split. Ran away like I have ever since."

She had reached his side when he looked up at her with wide, impossibly innocent eyes and swore, "I didn't know, Nade. I didn't know he'd died until weeks later. I was in a sorry state and by the time I got my act together...I was sure you hated me." He didn't resist her as she wove and arm around his shoulder and curled into his side. Jiraiya just continued to speak as though he was a fount of emotion, bottled away years too long. "So I hopped the first plane I could and got outta Dodge. I wasn't man enough to-"

"I love you."

Jiraiya felt his heart swell like it hadn't in decades. With fragile hope he peered down into the hazel brown eyes that he lived his life by and asked, "What?"

Tsunade swallowed with difficulty and repeated, " you. I think--no, I know now...I always have." She looked down and twisted her hands as she gushed, "I loved Dan, but never as much as I felt like I should. I was always thinking of you. Of what you thought or what you would have done. But then he...and you--I just was so angry. came back after your first book went worldwide." Her eyes glazed over with memory. "I had always promised myself that I'd throw you out if you ever showed up at my door, but I saw you and I couldn't." Spreading her worried hands out and staring at them with rapt attention, Tsunade confessed, "I think I knew...that I loved you, I mean. I just never wanted to face it. It took this little girl I've been mentoring to make me think..."

A broad, devil may care grin broke over Jiraiya's face as he gathered Tsunade into himself. "I think, then, that I owe that girl a ballad, at least."

What is it with me and making Tsunade, a perfectly strong female character, cry? Honestly. Anyway, this came from no where and wouldn't leave me be, so I scribbled it out. It's from the same !verse as Me & Mrs. Jones, that is it's set in an obscure and unnamed city in current times. Ha, yeah. I may post an epilogue that details Jiraiya's return to his 'old style' and perhaps a wedding...but who knows? I sort of like the ambiguity this has. Lets every reader imagine their own ending, you know? :)

Anyway, thanks for reading and please review!

DISCLAIMER: The poem that Jiraiya recites is 'Remembrance' by Robert Frost, the allusions (course of love/hauntings of memory) are Shakespeare and Dickenson, respectively. And lastly, the quote 'Not that I loved Caesar less...' is Shakespeare as well. NONE ARE MINE.