Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or these characters and do not stand to make any profit from the posting of this story.


"So… how 'bout it, Tsunade? Send me off with a smile on my face? Be my good luck charm?" Jiraiya's grin was devilish as always as he leaned over her but Tsunade's mood was sombre.

"Jiraiay, stop joking around. This is…this is… serious." She had a hard time putting voice to the ominous feeling she had about sending him off in search of the Akatsuki. She tried to shake it off, he'd been on such dangerous missions many times before. But this time she was his Hokage ordering him to undertake the mission.

"I'm sorry," she said as she turned her amber eyes up to meet his own onyx ones. She wasn't sure if she was apologizing for sending him on the mission or for turning down his by-now belabored request for sex.

For just a moment she saw the startled look in his own eyes as he caught the double meaning of her apology before his expression flickered back and he was his normal mischievous self. "Nah, don't worry about it," he assured her. "Being rejected in love makes a man stronger. Besides, if you want to wish me luck, there's one sure way you can do it, princess."

"How?" she asked. Looking at him she realized that he wasn't leaving Konoha due to her orders. In fact she doubted there was any way she could have ordered him not to go. After the Akatsuki's attempts on Naruto, Jiraiya was hell-bent on learning what their hidden plans truly were.

"Bet against me," he said.

"What?" She inhaled sharply and felt icy fingers of dread clench around her heart as she absorbed his words. "Idiot. Why would I do such a thing? I won't."

Jiraiya shook his head, his mane of white hair rustling slightly. "Because, Tsunade, you are a rotten gambler. The worst I've ever seen. It's a brilliant plan. If you bet against me, you're sure to lose. And I'll be back before you know it."

"I...I won't," she faltered

"You know I'm right," he taunted, tipping his head slightly to the side and smiling at her. "C'mon, bet against me."

She fought back tears. "Don't joke about it, you big dummy…if…if I lose you…" She couldn't finish the thought much less the sentence.

His voice was soft, "You won't. You never could." Then he took her chin in his hand and tipped her face up gently to look into her eyes. "Just say it for me, for good luck."

"I won't."

"Please?" he wheedled. "For luck? Say it for me, Hime."

"I…," her lips were dry and so was her throat, "I bet you won't come back," she quickly looked away. The whispered, 'dummy' was an endearment.

"See, that wasn't so hard," she turned back to see him shouldering his scroll. "You've rejected my offers of love AND bet against me. I feel invincible now."

She tried to take comfort in her teammate's bravado but found it difficult. It was done. His fate was sealed and under her orders. As she watched him walk away Tsunade made her own silent vow that he had better by God make it back alive or she would kill him herself.

As he walked off into the distance, Tsunade felt more alone than she ever had in her entire life. She was consumed with the idea that this time he was gone for good and she would never see him again. Almost. She had almost given in this time, given in to his request, into his embrace, given her heart into his keeping. But as always fear held her back, the fear of losing someone again.

She knew she was fooling herself. She had already long since realized she was finally as in love with him as he had been with her all these years. She had just never admitted it to herself.

Until now.

Now that he was gone.

Blinking back tears she headed to her office. Reams of work waited for her there. Entering the door and closing it behind her, she leaned back against it. For a moment only its sturdy solidness held her up. Sighing in resignation she called her assistant to her, "Shizune, I need your help."

Jiraiya looked around the familiar bar. It was late and the place was populated with the usual complement of people one would expect in an establishment like this given the hour. It was an older bar, dark and well-worn but also well-maintained. It wasn't seedy so much as pragmatic. People came to drink not get drunk. Drunks talked too much. Since the owner tacitly accommodated certain under-the-table transactions the last thing most patrons wanted was a talkative companion at their table.

Other, older-types of transactions were much more above-board. Tonight as always there was a pleasant assortment of ladies present. He may have meant it when he told Tsunade that nothing made a man stronger than being rejected in matters of love. A business deal, however, was just a business deal. For the right price if she weren't otherwise engaged, one of the ladies here tonight would be happy to be his companion for the evening. Love had nothing to do with it.

He glanced around appreciatively. Just like a fine drink, he wasn't looking for anything in excess, just something and someone to help him take the edge off. Tsunade would probably be scandalized to know that her friend frequently engaged in such pre-misson activity. Then again, he thought to himself as he knocked back the first of only a couple of drinks he would allow himself tonight, she'd known him for going on fifty years now. She probably knew everything about him. If not, she should.

His glance became less casual and more focused. He was usually looking for a certain type, tall and lean and most definitely brunette. He knew himself well enough to know what a quirky affectation it was. He never bought a blond. There were plenty of lovely brunettes in the world to pick and choose, from the lightest chestnut to full on raven-black. His prostitutes always looked like that, never blond. Never like Tsunade.

But just for tonight, he mused as he reflected back to her apology earlier in the afternoon and the sense of ...something in her eyes. Just for tonight could he pretend? Hell he wrote fantasy for others for a living. Just for tonight couldn't he indulge in a fantasy of his own?

He saw her then, at the end of the bar, engaged in a conversation with a few of the other girls and one or two shinobi who were chatting them up. A blond not quite the same shade as Tsunade's but close enough. She caught his eye as she looked away from whatever she and her two friends were discussing with the two shinobi. He had to smile at that. Was she a true professional, checking out her options in case the current deal fell through? Or was she new to this and unsure of herself? It didn't matter. His mind was made up and taking his drink from the table he went to join the conversation at the bar.

As he approached her he was relieved to see that her eyes weren't amber. That would have been too close. Blond and petite was close enough to his heart. If her eyes had been amber too he couldn't have gone through with it and would have turned his attention to one of her companions. But thankfully she had eyes somewhere between Sakura's emerald and Ino's cerulean, a vague blue-green that he couldn't quite name in the low light of the bar and by tomorrow wouldn't matter anyway, he could put her out of his mind.

The other two couples moved off to conduct their own business. She acted coy but eventually a price was negotiated. Briefly Jiraiya wondered about her demeanor, what drove a girl to do this. Sometimes they weren't always regular pros, sometimes a set back made a girl have to reconsider her options for putting food on the table.

Back in his room the night was sweeter and more unhurried than even he had planned. She wasn't inexperienced in sex per se but she certainly wasn't used to doing this for a living. She wasn't glancing at the clock or hurrying him along and was content to let their love-making be languid. He even allowed himself to believe her cries in passion as she climaxed were sincere.

Spent, he draped his arm over her waist, pulling her to him. Kissing the top of her head he whispered, "Can you stay?"

She stiffened against him just a moment and then relaxed into his body, spooning up so that her back was against his chest. "I...only for a little while," she whispered. He knew then that for the first time tonight she'd looked at the clock. They slept lightly in each other's arms.

Later, in the dimmest light of early dawn he heard her rustle and slip out of bed. As she searched for her shoes she realized he was watching her in the dark. "I...ummm...I have to go," she said simply.

"I know," his one night of pretense had ended, he acknowledged the reality that dawn was bringing. "Here," he fumbled in the dark for his wallet and pulled out a stack of bills, far more than they had agreed on, offering it to her. "Thanks."

Stupidly and awkwardly she stood there in the darkness until the meaning set it. "Oh...uh...thank you," she said as she took it gingerly, not even bothering to see how much was there.

As she turned to leave he called out softly to her, "You take care of yourself."

She gripped the doorframe as she paused. "You, too," she echoed. "You take care of yourself."

"I will," he chuckled.

She didn't leave yet but stood with her back to him. "Do you promise?"

He found himself wishing she'd turn once more so he could see her but she didn't. "I promise," he said.

And she was gone.

Tsunade closed the door to her bedroom behind her and leaned with her back against it as she slid down to the floor, her own hot tears sliding down her face. She pulled the wad of crumpled bills from her pocket as she released the henge and her features returned to normal. Soon she would return to the office and relieve Shizune who had spent the night there pretending to be the Hokage in her own henge. That could come later. She hugged her knees against her chest. For now all she wanted to do was cry.