A/N: Thank you for your patience these past few weeks. Final exams are officially over for me, though! Hopefully I'll have more time to work on this over the summer. My update buffer is pretty much exhausted.


ANBU Containment Complex K131

"I'm sorry. I should have known by now to not leave Anko and Kakashi unsupervised together," Hiruzen spoke to the petrified wood block that now held his most and least favorite student.

The writing on Orochimaru's last body, if you could even call it that, shifted. She was always a good learner. Too good.

"Ah. Well, she was your student."

Regrettable. I should have wished for a dumber one.

Hiruzen paused, not knowing what else to say.

He finally settled on, "You never did tell me why."

The paper vibrated hollowly, echoes of Orochimaru's own mirthless chuckle. And you never even noticed when.

"Humor an old man, will you?" Hiruzen sighed. "When?"

If Orochimaru had a mouth, he would be grinning humorlessly. I've always been scared of death, sensei. Ever since my parents died in front of my face and I could do nothing to stop it. You know that story.

"But you were never willing to start researching kinjutsu before. What finally convinced you that the price to pay for immortality was worth it? I taught you better than that." Hiruzen tried to make himself sound disappointed in his former student, as a good teacher should. He really did.

But within him, he knew he had no right to ask Orochimaru such things. He had no right to ask anyone such things. Orochimaru had made that explicitly clear when he had abandoned the village, so many years ago.

They both knew why he had to leave. Of course they did.

You also taught me about the Will of Fire, and nobility, and honor, and so many other little white lies. Fat load of good it did Sakumo Hatake in the end.

"Is that when? Sakumo?"

It doesn't matter. Konoha is a flightier bitch than Jiraiya's whores. She elevates her men to fame and glory and then smashes them down to earth as it suits her. Never caring for them any further than what benefit they can bring her, and never sparing a thought to what she might give to them for their sacrifices in return. They lay down their lives and honor for her, and what does she do but leave them to their fates and abandon them to die? So I thought, if I was going to live in such a world of villains, I might as well be truthful about the sort of man I am.

"Orochimaru."

Play the grandfather all you like, sensei. We both know the real reason why you are so lenient with my abandonment, why wasted so much time before sending men out after me. It had nothing to do with our student-teacher bond, the old love you felt for your adopted son –

"Are you denying that it never existed – "

No, but I am denying that excuse for why you didn't come after me. Student or not, you knew what the good of the village meant. You knew the value of discipline. You would have brought me back and thrown me in jail, if it hadn't been for one thing.

"Oh?"

Don't deny it, you liar. You look just like me underneath that skin. I don't blame you for it. I just wish you wouldn't pretend otherwise. Every shinobi in this village, in the Five Nations and all the satellite states in between, is like this. I'm the one who peeled off that skin and finally admitted to the world what I am. I understand why you won't want them to see that. You're a village leader; you've got to keep the peace.

"And you just want to let chaos run?"

I'm a scientist; I'm free to be open-minded. I don't blame you for wanting to live the way you want. I just wish you wouldn't blame me for wanting to live the way I want.

Hiruzen rolled his eyes. "I'd say that you're hurting innocent people, but then you'd just reply that I do the same, in even greater numbers."

And you've got a robe and hat to protect you.

"That, too."

If Orochimaru was here in full form he'd be looking down at the ground and tapping his fingers on his knees. That was one habit he had never broken when he was younger. You know, the writing said, it's funny how our world works. When a man kills one man, he's a murderer. Kill a hundred men, and he's a war hero. Ten thousand, and he's a king; a million, and he's a god.

"You've always been too smart for your own good, Orochimaru."

What can I say. I'm ahead of the curve.

"You were with the Akatsuki for a while, weren't you? How is Itachi?"

Aren't you communicating with him regularly? Part of your little plan, isn't he?

"Only the bare necessities. I am completely blind when it comes to his health; he tells me nothing. I think it is because he is blind to his own health, as well. I care about him, Orochimaru. Tell me, how was he when you saw him last. Please?" Hiruzen begged.

There was a lull, as if pausing to snort in disgust. He has a lung problem. Terminal. It wasn't so bad when I last saw him, but that was years ago. It should be worse by now. But you already know that. The Uchiha already knew that, when he was born. It was why they pushed him into this life so quickly in the first place. Wanted to wring out all the use out of their little genius they could before he died, I bet.

"I take it he's dying more quickly than anticipated."

He doesn't let it bother him much. He really loves this place, you know. And he loves that brother of his. Another pause, for a wry laugh. I don't understand why I'm so scared of death myself, sometimes. Why I want to continue living in a putrid world like this. It's what separates the other smart ones from me, I guess. I know for a fact Kakashi-kun is more ready for death than any other man.

"Are you ready for death, Orochimaru?"

Nope. Never. Why do you think I look like this?

"But you were dead. For a time."

Not quite. The seals. They kept me alive. Barely conscious. Less than a ghost, but more than gone. Not the nicest way to live… the block seemed to shrug, …but I was alive. Good enough, I guess. My life has been an entire compilation of 'good enough' and yet not.

"You'll be destroyed soon; you know that, right? We can't let you live."

I know. I keep telling myself I'm ready to die, but I'm not.

I don't want to die, sensei.

Hiruzen wanted to give Orochimaru one more chance. But the Sandaime was done with second chances. "The matter of your life or death has been out of my control for a long time now, Orochimaru. Much like you were."

I hate this village, sensei. I hate the shinobi. I hate what our world lives and stands for, what they gear children to be. But I can never leave it behind. For all of her faults, Konoha does have the sneakiest way of worming herself into our hearts.

"You speak of her like she's the worst girlfriend in the world."

Now wouldn't Jiraiya just love that?

Hiruzen Sarutobi sighed, feeling so much older than he already was. "I'm sorry, Orochimaru. I failed you. I have always failed you."

No you didn't. No one fails anyone. How can there be blame, when good or evil doesn't exist? Your morality is a stupid and nonexistent construct!

"I'd say that causing others suffering is not a nonexistent construct."

You eat meat. By definition, survival of one creature is the suffering of another.

"Unnecessary suffering, then."

You mean those experiments of mine? But that was for my own survival, too.

"You could have lived naturally without them."

And you could have lived naturally without being a shinobi, or a Hokage.

"Call me a hypocrite all you like. We are both flawed men. But at the end of the day, at least I've improved more lives than I've caused suffering. Your experiments, on the other hand, have helped no one but yourself."

We could argue about this all day and never get anywhere. You're blind, afraid to pry into things you call too 'dangerous' for human minds to comprehend. Truth is a release from fear. Fear of not being loved, of betrayal, of mercy and expectations and judgments of your fellow man. Even release from fear of death, which is admittedly the one truth I never managed to accept. But everyone is so afraid of what will happen once all that love and mercy disappears that they don't realize that betrayal and hate disappear with it too.

"And I suppose I would find you quite deep, if I was fourteen years old," the Sandaime responded coldly. "Good-bye, Orochimaru. May you find peace, wherever you go next."


The Nara Clan Compound

You can be sure that my life after that revolved around that packet of notes and the great brick wall of confusion that came with it. It had been a very disconcerting experience for me, to say the least. For a moment, I felt completely helpless and worthless for being just so lost.Having been so used to solving any sort of problem easily my entire life, it was difficult for me to accept that something like this – a mere sheet of paper with scratches of ink and graphite – would take up so much of my time.

It carried on like this for…I don't know how long. During the day, I'd sit there and idly redraw my seals over and over again, watching as I made zero progress while Ino zoomed through her katas and Naruto's summons grew to the size of wolves. And at night, I'd stay up until dawn, rederiving the basic geometry behind the character arrangements, all to no avail. Time and time again, I would turn back to my monstrous package of notes for a hint, any hint at all.

My favorite thing to read in that set, oddly enough, was the Yondaime's diary, the one that detailed the process of the creation of his famed Hiraishin no Jutsu. Yes, the single one technique that apparently was considered powerful enough to make up for the loss of a Sharingan. One technique! No wonder Kakashi-sensei and Jiraiya treated it like a gift from the gods.

Currently, all of this was way beyond my level. But it made me feel better, at least, that I wasn't getting it right away.

Minato's Log of Awesome Awesomeness! #493

The massive number at the end made the corner of my mouth twitch. Well, no one could accuse the Yondaime Hokage of lacking determination.

Sealing is something that is part technique and part intuition. The technique part of it is so strange and complicated, it might as well be intuition, and the intuition part of it is so simple and straightforward it might as well be a technique all in its own. It's like trying to explain colors to someone who was born blind.

Imagine, I suppose, learning how to read. Or – not even that. Because when one learns how to read, one already knows the language beforehand. So – imagine learning to speak your mother tongue. It is not something you remember doing. Certainly, it is not something you remember not knowing; it is difficult to imagine what your own language might sound like to a foreigner.

Now imagine creating one of those things. Languages are human constructs, several millenia in the making. Complexity – conjugation – writing, listening, reading, speaking – they were all things that were the work of entire societies over the span of many generations. To be expected to create a language of my own…admittedly, sealing was a much simpler thing than a whole spoken and written creation, but the hard part wasn't just creating a system of sealing. It was creating something that I personally could use and understand like second nature, as easily as a mother tongue.

Now how are you supposed to create your own mother tongue for something that is already difficult to understand enough as it is?

I was like a child learning how to write his numbers. He might know what the shape of an 8 looks like, but until one teaches him the concept of counting and values, he wouldn't at all understand what the figure 8 stands for.

Such a problem, of figuring how to bridge that gap between my processing and understanding, completely consumed me…

I smiled to myself. Finally, someone who understood me.

Too bad he was dead.

I never even knew him, but it made me really sad for some reason. I traced his handwriting with my fingers. So much knowledge was contained in these pages, so much more potential knowledge he could have contributed to the world. All of it, gone. Just like the ruined libraries of Uzushiogakure. So many things that could have been known but now never would be.

Sure, I could have memorized and regurgitated everything, but that sort of brute force learning wasn't something I appreciated. It wasn't enough for me to know that something worked like it was supposed to; I had to know why. Basic forms were only good for doing the basic things, exactly as they had been designed. There was no way for me to put them together into something more advanced, as sealing was supposed to afford me.

In the end, however, it was this mode of thinking that paid off, because that question of why was exactly the right approach to the task of developing one's on sealing language. One had to understand the exact reasons behind each energy transfer, the exact rationale leading up to every brush stroke, even in the basic schematics. Especially in the basic schematics.

I couldn't build a house without learning about each individual component. It wasn't enough just accepting anyone's random pre-made bricks and throwing them on top of each other – a good architect needed to account for what type of bricks he'd use and why. Some minimized cost; some maximized durability; some shouldn't be used at all, and instead be swapped out for wood, concrete, or other material. There were just so many different things to account for in learning the art, and every single one of them a foreign concept.

While this was somewhat of a morale boost to me, none of it was helpful in directly solving my current problem.

I have little to say about myself during that time, but to those surrounding me, they could easily say I had become an obsessive lunatic, in the nicest terms. My life was a zombie-like state of eating, sleeping, and sealing. To the point where Kakashi-sensei and Ino ended up striking a deal with my mother, that if she caught me staying up late, she should come tell him to take away the portfolio again until I was more responsible with my health.

(My response to that threat had been to nod, agree, and then secretly make backup copies of everything I had done up until that point, in case they really did carry through on that promise.)

Because I was going to war with this stupid fuinjutsu project and I wasn't going to give up until I had conquered it. Some nights, I wouldn't sleep at all, and that was when my mother – my mother, not my father – had to walk into my bedroom, forcibly turn off my desk lamp, and drag me over to my bed. I protested this greatly, but I was in no position to argue.

You know those moments when all it takes is a good night's sleep for everything to make sense, and everything just clicks,and you then feel really stupid for not figuring it out before? That was my brain, but instead of waking me up in the morning like normal people, it decided to wake me up at 2:00 A.M.

How stupid do you have to be, I thought in exasperation, to forget to include your own chakra as part of the seal's environment?


ANBU Containment Complex East 67-4

Today was a good day for Inoichi. Gaara had been the one to initiate conversation, instead of letting him speak first as usual. That brought the total up to seven times.

It was not perfect. It was awkward, and it was clumsy, and it was painful, but still – it was a "Hello," and one that hadn't been coaxed and dragged out of him, at that. Considering what he used to be like, Inoichi was ready to write off anything and everything as progress.

"Hello to you, too, Gaara," he replied, making sure to smile. Always, always, remember to smile. As part of the act, they had to convince Gaara that they liked him and wanted him to be there, all day every day. Even on the days where Inoichi was so exhausted, all he wanted to do was go home and curl up on the couch next to his daughter with a big tub of ice cream on his lap and the trashiest celebrity magazines in front of his face.

It was a statement of his great acting skills, in his not-very-humble opinion, that Gaara had fallen for his lies – normally, the kid went absolutely nuts at everyone who twitched even a little bit in his presence. After all, he had already fallen for his uncle's mind games once.

Luckily, Inoichi no longer had to spend so much energy pretending to feel something he was not. That was already an enormous load off his chest, and, in turn, made it even easier for him to befriend his young charge. In a classic case of "fake it until you make it," after a few months of Gaara's company, Inoichi found that he genuinely enjoyed talking to the kid. At his core, he was quiet and well-behaved.

Gaara nervously picked at his nails, as if he was having trouble remembering the proper courtesy questions that came after a standard greeting (he probably was), and asked, "How are you doing today, Inoichi?"

"I'm doing very well, Gaara. Thank you for asking. I hope you're feeling happy, too?" It was a strange question to ask a political prisoner, but compared to how the prisoners of war from the past Shinobi wars were still languishing, hidden and forgotten, in the dark corners of the other ANBU cells, Gaara was being treated like a king.

"Yes, I am happy here." Gaara attempted a smile. It was not a completely visually appealing smile, but it would do for his purposes. Better than the psychotic things he used to give every time he was about to go on a rampage; this one, at least, could be displayed to civilians without scaring anyone off or oherwise causing small children to burst into tears. Such was the result of having to use muscles one had never used before.

Besides, it was rather endearing. It reminded him of those little dogs who were so ugly that they were cute. What were they called – Hatake had one of them – right, pugs. Not that Gaara by himself was ugly, but he could make the strangest facial expressions sometimes. Perhaps it was a result of his emotionally challenged upbringing, or perhaps it was simply because he had reached the awkward stage of his life – what his wife liked to call "waiting for the puberty train" − while in captivity.

"How would you feel about leaving?"

Gaara blinked. "…Leave – leaving?"

"If you feel you are ready, we'd like to start reintroducing you to the rest of the world. You know, getting to go outside, talking to others, that sort of thing."

"Oh. I don't know." Suddenly, he looked frightened. "You're not sending me back, are you?"

Inoichi shook his head furiously. "Of course not! You'll get to stay in Konoha with me. Unless you want to go back to Suna?"

"No! I want to stay here. With you!"

"You can go wherever you want, Gaara. If you want to stay here, then you can stay, and we won't make you leave," Inoichi said soothingly. Of course, this was a complete lie. The plan was, if Gaara wanted to go home to Suna, they would "agree" and promise to let him out when he was ready, and then stall for time until he considered Konoha to be his home.

"Promise?"

"Promise what? That we won't make you leave?"

"Yes."

"I promise."

"Now, we're not going to shove you back into the big city right away. I plan to introduce you to small groups of people at a time. That way, you can grow close to them without having to worry about everybody else," Inoichi explained.

"But what if they don't like me?"

The question was plaintive. Insecure. Slightly worried. This was the child Gaara should have been, the child Gaara might still be able to be.

"They'll like you; don't worry. You're a good kid, Gaara. From the time I've spent getting to know you, I say I like you very much," Inoichi reassured him. Now that he was sleeping more peacefully at night, he no longer had that dead look in his eyes, which made him significantly more approachable.

If you could get over the fact that he had witnessed and caused the deaths of hundreds of people before this point. Which Inoichi could, because he had never personally known any of those people. If Gaara had caused harm to say, Ino, he might not have been so forgiving.

"Yeah, but you're, you," Gaara mumbled.

It was flattering, that Gaara would single out him as that one special human being out of all the other people he had met in his life, to say the least, but it was not part of the plan to have Gaara to grow unconditionally attached to just him. Friendship and loyalty was good, but he needed to be able to deal with other people, too, otherwise he'd never be able to survive in the general squad organization that Konoha operated around.

But it was alright. Gaara was still learning. In a sense he was a lot like many other abuse victims. They needed the time to adjust – first to one trusted individual, and then to small groups, before they could learn to be comfortable among larger crowds of strangers. He was progressing just as well as Inoichi expected him to.

"Okay, fine. I won't promise that everyone will like you, because there's always that one grouchy old guy that hates everybody. But in general, I can tell you that people will treat you normally. They won't run away from you for no reason. Not like they did in Suna." Because they wouldn't know Gaara was a jinchuuriki; that was the plan. "The other members of the team like you, too. Remember Ibiki?"

"The man with the funny head?"

Inoichi suppressed a snort. "Yes, him. He likes you, too. And that says a lot of positive things about you, because Ibiki doesn't like a lot of people." That, technically speaking, wasn't true; Ibiki did "like" a lot of people. Or, at least, he claimed that he did. Usually when Ibiki claimed he "liked" someone, it meant bad things for that someone, so Inoichi always took Ibiki's preference in friends with a bag of salt.

For example, he had "liked" that poor Kabuto Yakushi kid (Inoichi wondered if Danzo had ever kept tabs on him). He had also "liked" those teenagers from the Sound who had been unfortunate enough to become Genin under Orochimaru of all people. Ibiki also "liked" Inoichi, and if Inoichi's clan training hadn't prepared him to keep up with the man's maddening psychological tricks, he surely would have been dead right now.

Gaara nodded. "Oh. Okay."

"Right, then. You ready?" Inoichi asked, peeling back the seals that held Gaara at bay.

And then – another first for today – Gaara leaned over and hugged Inoichi.