There was a time when Tsunade was proud of her scars. She lay awake in bed, a skinny pigtailed genin, tracing them with her fingertips: white flecks scattered across her knuckles from secretly punching the stones that her instructor said none of them were ready for yet, smooth patches on the backs of her hands from where the skin rubbed off from the repeated friction of retracting her pullback hand against the rough cloth at her side, hairline cuts from clumsily caught shinai and shuriken, deadened areas from stealthy experiments with the chemical weapons her age group was forbidden to touch. Her scars were the marks of her courage, she thought.
By the time she was a wiry pigtailed chuunin, she had acquired many more scars: calloused knuckles from smashing stones, smooth patches along her shoulders where the straps of her pack had chafed, a slash down her ribs from an enemy who hadn't been quite dead when she'd stooped over him to retrieve a coded message, a spray of pitted burns on the back of her left hand from the caustic venom of a slug who hadn't been pleased to be summoned away from his supper. She lay awake on the forest floor, tracing them with her roughened fingertips. They were the marks of her inexperience, she thought. She vowed to gain no more.
When she was a voluptuous pigtailed jounin, an enemy sent Jiraiya flying into the path of the great slug Katsuyu's already-released spray. In the slowed time of combat, the venom hung in the air like stilled rain. Even Tsunade wasn't fast enough to do anything but leap forward to cover her teammate's body with her own. Her medical jutsu saved her life, but most of her skin was burned away. As she lay in the infirmary recovering, with her hands bandaged right down to the fingertips, she considered directing her regeneration to recreate her scars. But she decided against preserving the evidence of her girlhood failures. She arose from the bed with her body restored to a perfection it had not possessed for years, and all her scars lost to pride.
Once they were three children. Jiraiya stole a box of assorted mochi from Konoha's best sweet shop. He meant to bring it to Tsunade to share. But Orochimaru convinced Jiraiya to let him borrow it, saying he'd bring it back doubled, and instead ate the whole thing himself. When Jiraiya told Tsunade, she dragged them both back to the sweet shop and pushed both their faces down in the dough. Then she grabbed three boxes and ran. All of them were spanked, but not before all of them shared.
Once they were three shinobi in training. They breezed through the genin tests, the chuunin tests, and all the missions in between. They learned to summon snakes and slugs and frogs. They fought together, and learned together, and laid down their bedrolls so close together that their hair mingled as they slept, black and blonde and white.
Once they were three living legends. They were the Sannin, the Magnificent Three, the Three Great Shinobi. They gloried in their fame and power and friendship. At least, two of them gloried in their friendship, and they never stopped to wonder if the third did as well.
And then they were two.
And they were one, and one, and one. One cackling villain, one wandering writer, and one drunken gambler. And that was all that was left of the Legendary Three.
Tsunade keeps a bottle of sake by her bedside, for the nights when she wakes from a dream of three.
Everyone knows Tsunade's tragedy: the baby brother lost on his very first mission, the true love whose blood slipped through her fingers and was gone. Everyone knows how she packed up her grief and guilt to take with her over the borders of Konoha, and how she carried that load all the rest of her life. And everyone knows the names of the ones she loved, though they might have to frown and look up into the air to remember: Nawaki, the baby brother. Dan, the true love.
But they know nothing more than the names and the roles. Twelve years of life isn't a long time to make an impression on anyone but family and friends. Tsunade was Nawaki's only family, and the year he died was a hard one on Konoha, and harder still on untried genin. That was before the routine assignment of medical ninja to missions. Only six of the twenty genin from Nawaki's year survived, and none of them were on his team. And though more remember Dan, their numbers grow fewer with every passing year. Ninja don't retire, and for all their life-extending jutsu, fifty is old.
Tsunade accepts now that the dead are dead. But she regrets her failure to save them the only way anyone is ever saved, in the memories of those who live.
The Fourth Hokage burned like a meteor, dazzling the eyes and mind with the brilliance and speed of his rise and fall. The Third Hokage burned like a coal, going dim and gray before flaring up again in a breath of air. The Fifth Hokage seemed well on her way to burning herself out in exile and obscurity when the offer was made to her to succeed them both. The Legendary Loser, they called her by then: can't save her money, can't win a game, can't resist playing.
Nor could she resist Jiraiya's offer to get back into a different game. But when the papers stack up on her desk and the work piles up for the mason who carves the names of the dead, she longs for the days when all she could lose was money. She imagines changing her face, shrinking her breasts, and running back to her life of drunken irresponsibility. Then she takes a drink of sake and tells herself that leadership is merely the riskiest form of gambling. When she remembers that mocking name, the Legendary Loser, she drinks again.
And then she sets the bottle down. The Legendary Loser was what had to be burned away to enable the Fifth Hokage to rise from the ashes. She can no more step back into her old life than she could walk in her baby shoes.
Anyway, the bottle is empty.
Years pass in a blink when you're Tsunade's age. Babies become children become genin become chuunin become jounin. Shy girls gain loud voices and learn to smash stone. Lazy boys get a new light in their eyes and begin to lead missions. Villains redeem themselves. Tadpoles become frogs.
Tsunade can see the changes after they've happened, but the moment of the change itself always eludes her. She tells Jiraiya about that once, and doesn't need to explain why that bothers her.
"Orochimaru was a creepy little kid before he grew up into a creepy old man," Jiraiya tells her. "We missed seeing him change because he didn't."
"That's just what you'd rather believe," she replies.
Jiraiya shrugs. "Or maybe we can never see those moments because they go by too fast."
He snaps his fingers. "There! That's life."
She opens her mouth to argue, but they're interrupted by a breathless messenger boy with an armful of scrolls, all marked "urgent." She remembers the boy's mother delivering urgent messages up until her last month of pregnancy. Tsunade watches closely as the boy lays down the scrolls, to see if she can catch him growing up.
No one lives now who can remember the sound of Tsunade's voice, or who felt the strength in her little finger. Her stony features have been worn smooth by rain and wind. But shinobi still shatter the earth with the punch she perfected, still summon the descendants of her own great slug, still pull their friends back from the brink of death with her medical jutsu.
Hundreds of years after her death, Tsunade is still saving Konoha.