Burning Leaves

Tsunade looked out the window. Another hotel room overlooking another foreign village. It would never be her own village. Never again.

She'd fled a long time ago, thinking the pain was too great, the same way a burn victim thinks they're on fire. She'd run in desperation, in panic, broken-hearted urgency to be alone and hide herself away and never live again. Shinobi didn't do that. Kunoichi didn't do that. Shame kept her from going back, from ever looking into the faces of the people she had left.

Shizune had come to keep her from killing herself. She knew that from the start. The girl cared too much for her. And still, she was too coldhearted to ever return the same kind of devotion Shizune gave to her. It was unfair. But no matter how many times Tsunade tried to dismiss her, Shizune refused to budge.

Probably Shizune knew that the moment she was gone, Tsunade would do something foolish.

More foolish than running up a debt and running away. Compared to the battles she'd fought and the blood she'd shed, the blood she'd pumped back into dying bodies, the miracles she'd spun with her hands, the rattle of the dice and the wearing of different faces to evade her poor civilian victims seemed child's play. A game of tag played by grown children in masks, something malicious and not entirely wholesome in it, like someone in their midst really would turn out to be a monster.

But that jack-in-the-box has already popped, Tsunade thought, thinking of Orochimaru. He'd burst out of his childhood shell with aggressive fury. In her mind's eye, she saw a whirl of blades, Jiraiya versus Orochimaru, with the predictable winner.

She healed him. She didn't know why.

It would be kinder to let him fall and never have to get back up. Because he would get up. Over and over again. He was a hero's hero, all loud words and laughter, hot sake and hotter chakra, flames dancing on his yukata while he danced with the devil.

Tsunade bowed her head and shut her eyes. Stupid. Stupid of her to eulogize. It just made the ache in her chest worse. She wished it was some kind of medical problem she could diagnose and recover from, but this was different.

This was love.

Love was just about the worst thing that had ever happened to her. If she hadn't loved her brother, if she hadn't loved Dan, if she hadn't loved Orochimaru, and Jiraiya, and Sarutobi, if she hadn't loved Shizune…

She might actually be free from her self-loathing. Because then there would be no one to punish herself over.

The thought was bitter, like the acrid smell of burning leaves.