Disclaimer: Naruto is not mine. If it was, I'd totally devote one manga in the current storyline to Tsunade reuniting with Jiraiya and Orochimaru (I can't remember if he's really dead yet) if she dies. Because they make me laugh and cry like no other trio can.

Title: Never Let You Go

Summary Notes: Inspired by Evermore's Never Let You Go and PKN's If Only Tears Could Bring You Back, oh, and an image I saw on DA. need a break from studying for exams, but muse is being a cow so updates on Whispers and whatever else I have planned will have to wait. Oh, and I wanted to try my hand at something more angsty. Comments appreciated, as always. (and if anyone wonders, no, the last bit of this has nothing to do with her duty as Hokage-sama...see if you can figure out what she's referring to)

-------

Yesterday never seemed so far away

All this time you were right in front of me

And if I'd known what the future holds

I'd have never let you go...

"Life is fleeting, far too fleeting. Your future holds the greatest heartache - the loss of one dearer to you than any other...the one who holds your foundations together like only the truest of friends can - hold onto him. Hold onto and treasure every special moment in your memories and never let them go..."

Her hand gripped the sake bottle so tightly that it nearly cracked, and it was with a tremendous amount of control that she kept hold of it and didn't throw it across the room like she was tempted to. It'd just make a mess, and that would require cleaning, which would require moving from her position curled up in the corner of the window in her bedroom. And moving just plain hurt right now. No, it was absolute fucking agony. Every movement seemed to exacerbate the crushing pain in her chest, squeezing at her foundations until she couldn't breathe, as if reminding her with sadistic pleasure of just what she'd lost.

Stupid old hag. Even totally smashed, she could remember the stupid seer's words as clear as glass. Could clearly envision the day they'd gone to her. They'd recently become chuunin, her, Jiraiya and Orochimaru, and had just completed a mission. Being young and easily bored, they had immediately jumped at the chance to explore one of the towns they had been passing through as it celebrated some festival. And being young and easily bored, Jiraiya had jumped at the idea of visiting the seer waving at them. Tsunade had been scornful of the idea (even though her curiousity had been piqued), but surprisingly, had found little support in Orochimaru. The pale skinned boy was normally more practical than that, but when she'd questioned him, he'd merely smiled and shrugged before following after Jiraiya with all the complacence in the world.

Typical boys, ganging up on her like that. As always though, Tsunade had followed her teammates, and with much pouting and grumbling about false prophets and old hags, had allowed the seer to read into her *future*. She'd glared at the old woman with rebellious amber eyes...until she'd spoken those words. Tsunade had stared at her in both confusion and shocked comprehension, before shaking her head and fixing her glare back into place. With a haughty sniff, she'd dragged her boys out, and after a bit more exploring (and hauling Jiraiya's ass out of trouble, again), they had continued their journey home.

Try as she might though, she had not been able to shake those words from her head. No amount of distraction, or anger, or annoyance, or even busying herself chasing Jiraiya around a clearing and drowning him in the river for stealing her bra and panties could shake the words from her head.

Just like the sake couldn't shake them from her head now. Couldn't shake the words, couldn't shake the memories, couldn't shake the fact that she felt like the worst failure. She'd failed her friend, and now, every movement and thought and smell hurt, as if her foundations were cracking. She'd failed him, because she'd been too much of a coward to truly heed the old seer's words. No, no, she had heeded the seer's words...if she hadn't, she would never have committed the moments and memories that swirled like the thunderstorm outside in her mind. Now, at this moment, and Tsunade closed her eyes, hugging her knees to her chest tightly as she chased away the tears. Tears of anger and frustration. Tears of grief like no one else could imagine.

Those committed moments and memories though, she couldn't chase away. Because they wouldn't let her go...

---

"Nyah-nyah, can't catch me, Tsunade-hi-yeouch!"

"What was that, baka?"

"Uh...rape! RAPE! RAAAAPE!"

Tsunade stared incredulously at her friend - turned prey - turned apparent rape victim, trying vainly to keep her anger in place so that she could pummel the hell out of him for being a pervert and slapping her behind again during a sparring match. Stupid baka, he didn't know when to quit pushing his luck.

Unfortunately, it was rather difficult to stay angry when he was...well...being a drama queen and screaming random crap like that. So much so, that the whole situation seemed hilariously laughable. And when he peered out over his arms from their protective position, the trapped deer look was enough for her to indeed burst into laughter. When he stared incredulously at her for that, she only giggled harder, sitting back.

"Uh...hime?" Jiraiya asked tentatively.

"What?" she said, still chuckling. Jiraiya shrugged one shoulder, blushing faintly as he did so.

"You might wanna get off me."

"Why? No one's around." The oh so innocent words were out of her mouth before she could think about them, and taking stock of the situation, it was Tsunade's turn to blush slightly. Curse the teenage mind, she groused mentally. She'd attacked Jiraiya heaps of times, and they'd ended up like this, but it was only now that she realised just how...provocative and...wrong, it would probably look these days if Orochimaru or someone witnessed the sight of Jiraiya flat on the ground with her straddling him, beating him or not. Well, maybe not Orochimaru; he was familiar enough with the antics of his comrades to barely bat an eyelid when they started on each other.

Jiraiya seemed to be thinking somewhat along the same lines, but unlike her, he was a bit blunter. And a pervert-in-training at that, so it was with a slight smile and the most mischievous glint that Jiraiya informed her of the consequences involved with sitting on him in such a way for prolonged periods of time. Or tried to; it was a bit hard when you were somewhere between restraining your hormones and choking on laughter.

"Well...I'm a guy, hime," he drawled, watching with a sort of sadistic pleasure as she began to redden, "A teenage guy. Crappy hormones and a-" he broke off when she finally comprehended, laughing so hard he nearly passed out when she scrambled off of him. Blushing hotly, Tsunade glared at him from where she now sat beside him, slapping him reproachfully. His laughter was infectious though, and despite herself, Tsunade found herself unconsciously committing the whole scene to memory...

---

"So let me get this straight. The brat summoned Gamabunta?"

"That's what I just said."

"And to do this, you threw him off a cliff?"

Jiraiya shrugged and took a swig of sake, leaning back against the roof of the motel they were staying at before they continued their journey back to Konoha...and Tsunade's inauguration as Godaime Hokage.

"I didn't mean for him to summon Gamabunta, of all toads. I was just tryin' to kick his ass into gear. Do you have any idea how humiliating it was to watch the baka summon a tadpole? Oh, and then there was the tadpole with legs, but that would have been about as useful as the time you wore chopsticks in your hair for that mission." He eyed her, grinning lazily when she hit him lightly.

"I'll have you know that chopsticks are very effective for eye-gouging," she shot back, though the sharpness of her tone was belied by the companiable way she leant against him. She would blame her affectionate mood on the sake knew, but she knew (and he knew) that that wasn't entirely the truth. No, she'd missed him, and he'd missed her, but it was something left unspoken.

"I'll bet you got your ass out of there like the wuss you are when he did summon Gamabunta," she murmured wryly, her cheek finding the rough material of his shirt "That toad's nastier with his words than Katsuyu is with her poison spray."

"Kinda like her summoner," Jiraiya chuckled, refilling her sake dish. That got a grumbled insult, but she was either too drunk now or too comfortable against him to actually cause any physical damage. Probably a bit of both, but Jiraiya liked to think it was mainly the latter. Tentatively, he shifted and placed an arm around her slender shoulders. That got a hm, and bolstered by the fact that if she was in the wrong mood, she'd have punched him by now, he tightened the arm, pulling her snugly against his side.

Curled up against her oldest and best friend and watching the stars wink into existence, Tsunade allowed herself to close her eyes and just...be. It was much like old times, though now, they were missing one other crucial element to their companiable contentment, a piece that would be forever missed, and forever missing. There was a vague sense of wistfulness and melancholy, a tender ache that didn't need to be spoken aloud; she knew Jiraiya shared it with her, and only he would ever share it with her. And wrapped up that warm, starlit blanket of tenderness and age old melancholy, Tsunade silently wove the moment into her memories.

---

"I'm going back to Mount Myokoubo."

It took all of Tsunade's self control not to show her shock at his confession. They'd been sitting at the top of Hokage mountain (something they'd used to do all the time, but had hardly done since Jiraiya had gone to the toad sanctuary the first time and she'd gotten with Dan), attempting to process and recover from their latest "mission of torturously cataclysmic proportions", as Jiraiya called it. She wasn't sure how the hell he'd even managed to come up with something so eloquent, when she felt like she'd been run over by a herd of cows and then beaten against the walls of Sunagakure repeatedly. God, she was tired.

Looking at Jiraiya, she could see he was just as, if not more tired. Was that why he was running off to that place again? Tsunade felt anger and hurt stirring in her to mingle with the surprise, but the way he looked at her when he turned was enough to forestall it for the moment. Exhaustion, resignation, even hurt.

"Why?" she finally said, struggling to keep the hurt out of her tone. It'd just look petulant, though she couldn't keep the slight pout from her lips as she turned to look out at the village bathed in the setting sun. She heard, or rather felt Jiraiya sigh from where his leg brushed companiably against hers. A full bodied sigh that caused his whole frame to heave, and her to shiver slightly as if it was transferred to her.

"I want to learn as much as I can about the secrets of my summon, Tsunade. And..." he trailed off before clearing his throat and adding softly, "It's not like there's anything, or anyone, keeping me here. Sarutobi-sensei and I just don't talk anymore, since that last mission...Orochimaru's wrapped up in his studies, and it's not like anyone else wants me here."

"What about me?" she mumbled softly. Yeah, what about her? He'd returned not long before Dan's death, and since then, had hardly left her side in the two years following. She knew it was selfish, but she didn't want him to go. She needed him with her, even if she was too chicken to acknowledge it.

Jiraiya's hand tilted her chin up gently. "Come with me then."

"I can't..."

"Then just say it...Tsunade," he said, so softly she barely heard it, "Just...say it...say it and I won't go."

She knew what he wanted her to say. It was what he'd always wanted her to say, ever since he'd asked her out that first time. And somewhere inside her, it was there. It was there, causing her chest to clench and her cheeks to flush, yet still, the words choked in her throat.

She couldn't say them.

He seemed to know it too, and a slight, bitterly wistful smile curled his mouth, a smile not many would believe the boisterous Jiraiya capable of.

"Can I have a hug before I go, then?" he murmured in a weak attempt at humour. It nearly brought tears to her eyes, but this, she could oblige him in. Stepping forward, she allowed Jiraiya to wrap her up in a bear hug, his deathly strong arms gentle yet so perfectly snug around her form. She breathed in deeply, closing her eyes and listening to his heart beating as he breathed in and out, the warm air caressing the strands of hair around her ear. It put her in mind of the nights he'd sat there, on her bed, with nothing in mind except holding her close and comforting her as she cried herself to sleep with guilt and grief...from Dan's death, from Nawaki's. And like then, she could almost feel herself being lulled to sleep. Only, he was leaving now, and she'd be alone again. And it was all her fault. It was painful and perfect and comforting and agonising, and Tsunade would never forget this moment in time.

---

The thunder and lightning had long since tapered off, leaving only the steady beat of rain. As if Jiraiya himself - her baka-chan - had scorned and told off (and probably tried to beat the hell out of, knowing him) the gods of the elements for daring to brew up a storm on tonight, of all nights. He'd been one of a few to know of her fear of thunderstorms. He was such a gallant idiot that he probably would try to take on the gods of all beings for her. It was much like he had done the first time Orochimaru had upset her when they were genin, or the night Nawaki had died, despite Jiraiya's friendship with the snake-like boy. He'd been her comfort even when she'd pushed him away, her protector even when she'd thought she didn't need protecting.

The glass shattered with a loud report against the wall on the other side of the room, the broken sake bottle falling to the carpet, the last meagre strains of liquid glinting in the weak light of the room as it dropped to the carpet. She didn't give a damn - why finish off the freaking thing when she didn't have anyone to finish it with.

He'd been her best friend, and god, she loved him. And she'd been too much of a coward, too damn arrogant, to tell him. Too afraid to try again, after Nawaki, after Dan, even before Dan. She'd had her chance, and thrown it away, and now, she truly was broken. Tsunade shivered, the tremors shaking her body with muted violence as she pulled Jiraiya's flame-embroidered jacket tighter around her, vainly trying to absorb the warmth, the smell of him, willing with all her heart and body for the heavy comfort of his arm around her shoulder, his breath warming her hair, her cheek.

It was in vain, for Jiraiya was gone. She would never feel any of that again. All she had to cling to now was his legacy in Naruto, his jacket that she clung to so tightly now, and the memories as they danced like glass in the firelight in the recesses of her mind.

With a great, shuddering gasp, Tsunade buried her face in her knees, her shoulders shaking as she finally allowed her body to give quiet voice to that agonising, shattering pain. Tomorrow, she would get up and move again; she had to. She was Hokage, and Jiraiya would want it. For now though, she wanted nothing more than to stay curled up in a ball, trying (even when she knew it would only be in vain) to capture those flickering threads of memory - a warm hand, a warm mouth, warm breath, a warm body and a warm voice that lulled her to sleep like nothing else could - and piece them together, as if by doing so, she'd bring him, everything, back to life.

Oh, baka-chan. If I'd truly known what the future held, I would never ever have let you go...