I wrote this for the Femgenficathon 2011 on Live Journal, based on the prompt: There are days when solitude, for someone my age, is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall. - Colette (1873-1954), French novelist

Many thanks to Scarlett71177 and Vnfan for the support and beta. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.

Loose Ends

The fire had finally settled down, only an occasional hiss and billow of white smoke when its flames burned through to the next layer of thoroughly sodden wood. An outcropping of rock formed a shallow cave that sheltered their heads and the fire from the relentless sky, but the ground was still as cool and damp as it was unyielding. That was life in the Rain Country, and no one from Konoha knew that better than she did. No one living, at least.

Their journey had stopped short of Amegakure. Its unfriendly, industrial skyline loomed ahead on the footpath that ran parallel to their rustic little sanctuary, but Tsunade had preferred the privacy of camping to staying at an inn within the village. Although the Shinobi Alliance had won, and Amegakure was no longer a victimized battlefield caught between five warring lands, it was still a depressing hole of a place scarred by decades of hostility. She would never again rest her head in the village that had taken so much from her.

Everything was harsh here – the land, its history, the weather, the memories – and beneath the illusion of the Transformation Technique, Tsunade was feeling her age. She had expected as much, and it was the very reason why she had insisted on lugging so much sake with them. A natural tonic she'd argued, when confronted by Shizune's disapproval, one that soothed her aches and pains. Even if it couldn't make her forget.

The latest bottle of tonic was warming in a kettle of water that hung over the fire. Tsunade leaned forward and retrieved it with a folded handkerchief, refilling her porcelain cup.

"Shizune? Sakura?" She thrust the bottle toward them in an offer to refill their cups as well. Her arm was visibly unsteady, and if she did not take care she would set her sleeve on fire.

The question had interrupted their conspiratorial giggling. Both women looked at her with overly bright eyes.

"I don't know if I should, Tsunade-sama." Sakura took a deep breath and blew the air upward, momentarily ruffling the pink hair that framed her forehead. "I'm already feeling—"

"Freeeeeeeeee," said Shizune, as she held out her cup. A crooked smile and a slurred word here and there bore witness to her drunken state. It wasn't often that she stopped fretting and let go; Shizune was the type to fear she might completely unravel.

Sakura seemed to consider Shizune's remark for a moment but before she could reply Tsunade had their cups refilled and then some, the splash of sake causing the fire to hiss and smoke again. It wasn't that she wanted them drunk, she simply wanted them to sleep well. Very well.

Propping herself up against the side of the cave, Tsunade settled into her bedroll to watch and listen. Despite the rain and only the vaguest of explanations for why they were way the hell out there, the girls appeared to be enjoying themselves. Their silhouettes flickered against the rock wall behind them in ever-changing shapes and patterns, and yet their shadows were still somehow less animated than their conversation.

They gossiped with an amusing sort of energy, as if they were plotting revenge against the collective stupidity of all the men they had ever known. Tsunade could easily sympathize with the temptation, but also understood from experience that it was a hopeless mission. If there was one thing she had truly accepted, it was that men were an exasperating but inescapable part of life. She knew. She had loved her share of them.

Her father, her honored grandfather, Hiruzen-sensei, Nawaki, Dan. Even Orochimaru still held space among the memories of her heart. They were all part of who she had become and achieved in her lifetime, all shared in the result for good or bad. But none had believed in her so completely, or had gone to greater lengths to prove it, than Jiraiya.

Jiraiya. He was the reason they were way the hell out there. He was the reason why, after a life of fighting and wandering and then leading her village toward peace, she was facing the sunset of her life at such loose ends. It was something she had to do.

"I am naming my successor and stepping down as Hokage," said Tsunade.

Her entrance into the conversation was unexpected. The faces across the fire slowly lost their giddy animation, their expressions left almost blank by the surprise statement.

"Tsunade-sama." Shizune blinked a few times as if it would help force the idea into her mind. "Why?"

"Because enough is enough and I no longer have anything to prove to anyone." Tsunade nodded with a finality meant to remind herself as much as her companions. "I accomplished what I set out to do."

Shizune continued to blink, a trace of tears in her eyes now. "But Tsunade-sama — what will you do?"

"Exactly what I please, when I please." Tsunade lifted the porcelain cup to her lips and filled her mouth with warm sake, then tossed it back with a younger woman's defiance. "It will be a welcome change from the office routine – the council meetings, the mission assignments, the endless paperwork. I may devote all my time to medicine now."

"When?" Sakura leaned forward, her eyes brighter still. "When will you make the announcement?"

"As soon as we return from this trip." Tsunade avoided their scrutiny and mixed emotions by retrieving the bottle of sake from the kettle and refilling her cup once more. "Pending approval of the village elders and the daimyo, of course." She smirked. "But since he has saved each and every one of their sorry, faithless asses several times I don't expect any debate."

The fire highlighted a fresh blush of color on Sakura's cheeks – the same pink as her hair – and Tsunade smiled inwardly at its meaning. Sakura had learned, far earlier than Tsunade had, that a woman's first love was not always her last. That finding love with a friend was not only possible but the ultimate partnership. It was heartwarming to watch her be unable to contain her happiness.

"Naruto." Sakura spoke his name with a hush that bordered on reverence. "You mean Naruto."

"Yes. It is his time."

Shizune dried her eyes with her sleeve. "Have you told him yet? Does he know?"

"If I had we would hear him yelling about it even from here."

The thought of Naruto's enthusiasm ringing across the distance brought back their laughter. It was what Tsunade had wanted; some time alone with them to just be girls, before everything changed and the opportunity was lost. They were as surely her daughters as if she'd brought them into this world. She had shared with them all her strength, knowledge, and experience, and the time had finally come to let them move beyond her to the rest of their lives.

Out with the old, in with the new.

It looked as if the sake and big news had sent Sakura into her own private world. It wasn't long before she said good night and crawled into her bedroll, a secretive smile on her face as she drifted to sleep. Shizune fought hard to stay awake, insisting she would keep Tsunade company, but after many assurances that it wasn't necessary she finally gave in and relaxed. She was out before she managed to pull the blanket over her shoulder.

Tsunade lingered over another cup of sake and waited until she was certain she could sneak away without waking them. It wasn't easy; the ground had numbed her backside right up through her tailbone. It was all she could do to stand without issuing a string of profanity and make her way out into the rainy darkness.

Away from the warm firelight, the night felt close and binding like a shroud. The sky there was never inky black and sparkling with stars the way it was on most nights in Konoha, but haunted; a tech-noir canvas choked with neon clouds and misery. Although her specific destination on this night was unfamiliar there was no need for a map, no need for directions from the locals. She had already been there a thousand times in her darkest dreams.

Tsunade hurried through side streets, head down, the hum from the maze of ducts and power lines overhead rattling her skull. At last she felt the clammy air rolling in off the distant ocean. It coiled around her feet and drew her forward, enveloping her, filling her lungs with the smell of salt. Reaching the dark end of the deserted block, the pavement became a muddy path that she followed to the water's edge.

For a while she stood at the shoreline, the heels of her sandals slowly sinking into the grit.

"I've come back." It wasn't until her greeting was met by nothing but the sound of rain and lapping water that Tsunade realized she'd held the irrational hope he would somehow find a way to answer her. "And I hate this place. The lengths you will go to get attention!" The taunt was met with silence as well.

After a time, her eyes fully adjusted to the relative darkness, Tsunade made her way to a large rock and sat down.

"I came to tell you that you did it. Your vision changed the shinobi world."

She hesitated again, giving him one last chance to release his Transparent Escape Technique and appear before her. But he didn't. Resigned to a one-sided conversation, she heaved her considerable chest and went on.

"I wish you could know him now. Your apprentice. I wish you could have been here to see what he did. You'd be so proud of him, Jiraiya, of the man he's become. Naruto is the living will of his parents – and the spitting image of Minato – but…but it's you I see in him most of all."

Fighting a flood of emotion, Tsunade leaned over and plunged her fingers into the shallow water at her feet, grabbing a handful of pebbles. She threw one toward the expanse of the inlet.

"Naruto did everything you did…trained twice as hard, believed in a better future, never gave up on his friend, loved the headstrong and foolish girl. You'll be happy to know it worked out better for him."

Another pebble.

"The closer I got to this place the more of thought of the old days. And it made me angry."

Her temper brought a high concentration of chakra to the muscles in her arm, and Tsunade knew that the next stone she threw had rocketed at least a mile into the darkness. It was raining harder and thunder was beginning to rumble out of the clouds.

"It wasn't fair. How Orochimaru treated you, how I treated you. That you were disrespected and killed by your own student – a child you cared for even though it meant staying behind in this hell hole. Sometimes I wish we had let Orochimaru kill Nagato that day. I'd wish it again if it meant you could be here now. But if you were, would we still have the peace Naruto was willing to fight for?"

Another pebble.

"He's going to be named Hokage, you know. Naruto." Jiraiya's wolf-like howl of amusement echoed in her ears. A flash of lightning connected with the spire of a nearby skyscraper, momentarily illuminating the gothic landscape of the village. A loud crack of thunder followed. "When, you ask? Just as soon as I'm done with you."

Two pebbles at the same time.

"I once told Shizune that people become stronger because there are memories that they will not forget. It's true, and in that sense I owe most of my strength to you, Jiraiya. You never stopped believing in me, even when I had stopped believing in myself. And I know I should have said these things to you when I could – when these words would have counted. I'm sorry I didn't."

She let the rest of the gravel slip through her fingers.

"You spoiled me, you know? Made me believe you would always be here…somehow, somewhere." Tsunade paused to catch her breath and impatiently wiped the tears and rain from her cheeks with the heel of her hand. Another bolt of lightning pierced the darkness farther north, and she waited until the thunder boomed before she spoke again. "Yeah, I thought about it. Deep in that perverted soul of yours you know I did. Would we have remained friends once we shared a bed? You never came home to find out."

The next moment a perfectly perverted, rebellious thought entered her mind. Tsunade immediately worked the sandals from her feet, stripped off her wet clothes, and waded into the gentle inlet waves. The water was icy, as cold as the hand of Death, but she was determined. If she had a heart attack or died from hypothermia she was convinced there were worse ways to go. She would only sink into the depths and rejoin her friend.

Teeth chattering and muscles screaming, she swam out just far enough that she could no longer feel the rocky shore beneath her feet. "Get a good look," she said, floating on her stomach for a few moments before rolling over on her back. "And don't dare say you had to die to see me naked."

Thunder rumbled in the distance and Tsunade laughed. But it was too cold to stay any longer and she headed back to land, the air suddenly seeming a lot warmer than it had a few minutes ago. She pulled on her clothes and wrung the water from her long ponytails. Hugging herself to ward off wracking chills, she faced the water once more.

"I am the Godaime Hokage. I must return to my village and retire, and learn how to be an old woman who acts her age. I can tell you right now, Jiraiya, you got off easy."

She waited for the thunder to speak for him one last time but the sky was silent. There was nothing but rain.

"I miss you, you big dummy," she whispered.

Tsunade then turned away and headed back toward the cave, knowing she would never set foot in Amegakure again.