Rating: T+

Warnings: Blood, weird angst, mentioned child death (murder), moral ambiguity, discussions of sexuality, language, Anko, etc.

Word Count: ~12,000 this chapter, ~14k overall (complete)

Pairings: past Jiraiya/Orochimaru

Summary: Part one of Cry isn't the only one in the village to earn the title "monster". At the age of six, he meets a collared Orochimaru and makes a most unlikely ally. Mentioned slash.

Notes: This was originally another prompt from TheSecretUchiha, but I kind of veered wildly into the left field with it three words in, until only the basic framework is the same. I'm aware that drawing parallels between Naruto and Orochimaru is very controversial, but I did it anyway, just because. :)

There's a whole framework to this AU that isn't clearly touched upon within the story, though it's briefly mentioned. My notes are at the end of the second chapter for those curious, if you want to skip there first. It's readable without, though. They're just extras for better comprehension.

Also, if you don't think it's possible for someone to mistake Orochimaru for a girl, Google "young Orochimaru" and then come talk to me.


White Knight, Burning Bright

It is a form of self-inflicted torture, but Orochimaru traces the lines each morning when he rises. They lie stark against his pale skin, curled around each of his joints and trailing across his limbs like a comet's afterimage seared into the retina. Each of his tenketsu points bears a smaller design, a spiral with outstretched rays that seem sharp enough to cut, and more symbols march down the curve of his spine. He hates them all, these marks, hates with every breath he draws into his lungs and every step he takes along the boundary Konoha's wall denotes. Hates them whether seen or unseen, because there is no difference in the stares he draws.

But most of all, he hates the thick bands of black that curl around the base of his throat.

(But most of all, he hates the man who put them there.)

Collared, he thinks, fingers tracing the lines with unerring accuracy, even though he's long since shattered every mirror in his home. Caged, and it's still enough to send cold fury racing through his veins, no matter how many years it's been. Many, now—at least seven, he thinks, though sometimes the ennui of his dreary existence means the days drag like veritable decades. Gone is his pride, and gone is his passion for questions and queries—the latter is what brought him here, after all, and though he looks on the people responsible with no little hatred burning in his twisted heart, he is logical enough to lay the blame where it must go. It was his actions that led to this, his…curiosities, once sanctioned when preformed on prisoners of war but taboo as soon as the villagers could no longer turn their eyes away.

Once, science and learning and discovering was everything to him, but no more. Now freedom has taken its place, and it is far more of a castle in the sky than even those goals of immortality he once held dear.

He pulls his robes on, slow, deliberate. He covers the marks because he can't scrub them from his skin, hides them as best he can with sleeves a few inches too long and high necklines where he once cared little how much skin he showed. His hair is long for more than vanity these days—it hides him more thoroughly that way—and gone are the robes of purple and green and pale blue. They're too likely to draw the eye, to announce his presence, and with it his shame, to everyone as soon as he steps among them. Brown, now, or dark grey, just dull enough to be unobtrusive.

Orochimaru's hatred is no little thing, as deep and dark as a drowning sea, and all of it is saved for his situation. He, who once held himself up as the greatest shinobi in Konohagakure, as a Sage and a genius and one who should be Yondaime Hokage—that man might as well be seven years dead. Now he is fallen, shamed, disgraced and humbled; he seethes, but quietly, because his one-time allies are gone. There is no hope of escape, and the resignation that eats at his every limb angers him more than the betrayal.

Those who once loved him best, well—

Suffice it to say they do not love him anymore.

There is a loud rattle, a clatter, a sharp, fierce curse, and something breaks with a crash. Orochimaru pauses, hairbrush in one hand, and then shakes his head, fighting a very faint smile. Because…because that's not true, is it? There is still one left who loves him, though she knew him before (Before, he sometimes thinks, when he allows himself the whimsy. For him there is now Before and After, and would that he could travel back to the former and leave the latter well behind him). And he is…grateful.

Gratitude is not an emotion with which he has much familiarity, but all of that which he has is saved for her.

Swift, silent steps take him from the bedroom to the tiny kitchen—barely a handful of steps, because the apartment is also tiny, and in very poor repair. The floorboards creak beneath him at the smallest hint of inattention to his steps, like a poor man's nightingale floor, when Before such tells had not betrayed him since he was a child.

If nothing else, this near-exile has been good for his noiselessness.

There is no door from the main room to the kitchen, though he suspects there once was, and through the gaping portal he can see a head of violet hair bobbing, a figure in fishnets and tan cloth muttering to itself as it crouches beside the stove. Orochimaru surveys the scene for a moment, then crosses his arms over his chest and says dryly, "Dare I hope that wasn't my favorite teapot?"

Anko yelps, jerks, and smacks her head on the lip of the counter as she bolts to her feet. A bright greeting turns into a string of vicious curses as she clutches at her skull, and Orochimaru sighs, but crosses the tiles to pull her hands away from the lump, checking that she didn't accidentally give herself a concussion. It wouldn't be the first time.

But though there's a lump, it's nothing more serious than a bruise, and Anko gives him a sheepish smile when he raises a brow at her. "Morning, sensei," she offers, nudging him back and dropping to her knees again to finish gathering up shards of porcelain. "Don't worry, it was just the cups that broke."

Orochimaru retrieves a piece that skittered clear to the far wall and turns it over in his hand, studying it. Plain white with a few streaks of dark red like drunken worm trails across the surface—he recognizes the set. A gift from Jiraiya, long ago, and absolutely the most hideous tea set he has ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. It should be a relief, to finally have an excuse to get rid of it.

It should be, but it's…not.

One more piece of Before gone, he thinks, closing his hand around the shard until he can feel sharp edges bite into his palm. It is more sentiment than he usually allows himself, but…

But it has been seven years since Jiraiya looked at him for more than a handful of seconds, as if he can no longer bear even the sight of Orochimaru. Seven years since the last time he felt the weight of Jiraiya's arm across his shoulder, since he could look to the left and see a big, broad form strolling beside him, grinning lazily in the sunlight. Seven years since birthdays or holidays or the anniversaries of their promotions was last met by gifts and celebration that Orochimaru pretended to hate but in truth could not bring himself to mind.

Seven years since he learned to hate Jiraiya with every fiber of his being, and not one day of it has passed easily.

"Sensei?" Anko's voice, touched with concern and a faint hint of wariness. "Sensei, I'm sorry about your cups. Um, if you remember where you got them I can try to find replacements?"

Orochimaru breathes out, forces himself back to the present and away from the thoughts that all too easily turn dark. He opens his hand, absently noting the streaks of bloody red now decorating the pale china, and compels himself to motion. "No," he says, and the word does not shake or emerge rough, does not tremble no matter how he sometimes thinks it should. "No, Anko, it's fine. It was…a truly hideous set. I've been looking for an excuse to get rid of it since it was given to me."

Anko's tense shoulders ease, and in a heartbeat the grin is back on her face, wide and bright. "Oh, awesome," she cheers, tossing the handful of shards she's gathered into the bin. "It really was ugly, but hey, what do I know about art? Maybe it was your best heirloom tea set worth a million ryo or something."

Orochimaru rolls his eyes, stepping around her to get another pair of cups from the shelf—plain white, this time, and kept well out of Anko's reach as he turns towards the stove. The pot that once matched the broken cups sits beside it, steaming gently. It truly is an ugly thing, squat and very close to deformed, with a lid that doesn't quite fit and a spout that tends to drip tea all over when it's poured. The paint streaks decorating it were likely meant to represent some artist's vision of cherry trees in bloom, but instead they just look deranged.

And yet…and yet it aches, the thought that he now has to consign this one-time gift to the rubbish heap.

He pushes the soppy mawkishness of that sentiment down ruthlessly, locks it away inside his mind where it will never again see the light of day and focuses elsewhere. The teapot is warm in his hands, far warmer than the frigid apartment that never quite manages to hold the heat, and he relishes it as he carries it over to the small table in the main room. Anko joins him a moment later, dusting off her hands, and bounces into her seat as though there's some surprise waiting for her at the end of their morning ritual. Orochimaru just shakes his head at her, because after nine years of this he's become accustomed to it, no matter how he despaired of her in the beginning.

"A new type of tea, I take it?" he asks, pouring them each a cup and then settling back in his seat, lifting it to breath in the scent.

Anko grins, the source of her excitement finally clear. "There has to be some good about schlepping all the way to Tea Country," she laughs. "It's lapsang souchong. They smoke it over pine fires to get that taste. Do you like it, sensei? I can probably swing a mission back that way if you want more. The Daimyo liked me. He kept talking about establishing ninja bloodlines and creating a future for the shinobi of his country. Isn't that cool? It's nice that Tea Country has a Daimyo who thinks about his shinobi so much."

Orochimaru has no doubt that the man's urge to "establish ninja bloodlines" had little to do with his shinobi and much, much more to do with the fact that Anko's mission clothes could be considered skimpy at one's absolute most generous. It's a decent method of distraction in battle, if nothing else, so Orochimaru has never said anything, no matter how Sarutobi once hinted at a need for propriety. But Anko, for all her ability, is often as dense as a particularly solid boulder, particularly where men are concerned, and over the years it has faded from exasperating to merely amusing. Perhaps even endearing, when Orochimaru is in a particularly maudlin mood.

"It is quite good," he says, ignoring the rest of the chatter with the ease of almost a decade's practice. And it is—heavy and smoky with a faint edge of bitterness, nearly strong enough to be overpowering. It brings his senses to life, banishing the dull lassitude of the morning, and it's a welcome revival. He has never been one to enjoy rising before the sun, though he knows it is an efficient way to live.

Anko beams as though he just told her she is next in line for Hokage, her pale brown eyes lighting up. She takes a noisy slurp of her tea, despite the fact that Orochimaru knows very well she can perform a perfect tea ceremony when she wants to, and slumps back in her chair. "Good," she says with satisfaction. "I brought some other kinds, too. Maybe now you'll stop drinking that same old boring tea every single morning."

"I enjoy my same old boring tea," Orochimaru points out, arching a brow at her as he takes another sip. "It's decent."

That earns him a face, pulled without regard to the fact that she is now nearly nineteen and should have outgrown such things. "Careful, sensei," she teases. "You're beginning to sound like an old man."

He thinks of reminding her that he is nearly fifty, exceedingly old for a shinobi, but Anko is touchy about such things. Often the topics that they don't care to talk about overlap, so there's no danger of venturing into sensitive subjects when they're together, but there are some they don't agree on. He thinks this particular one stems from his imprisonment, though he isn't certain. Perhaps it's the fact that Anko was always so supportive of the idea of Orochimaru becoming Hokage, and his age now is proof that it will never happen. He is too old to be Hokage in anything except a dire emergency, even if he was not the village's resident leper.

Instead of touching on that, he simply snorts softly, as she expects him to, and turns his gaze out the cracked window that overlooks the wall and the forest beyond. Once his walks through the old trees were frequent. Now they're a luxury he can no longer take for granted. "Do you have another mission today, Anko?"

Anko huffs, slumping a little further into her chair with an expression dangerously close to a pout. "A shift at the Missions Assignment Desk," she whines. "After lunch. No one comes in after lunch! It's gonna be this huge snore-fest, and I'm stuck with Ebisu the whole time. He always stutters and stares at my boobs no matter what I do or say to him, and I just want to punch him in the face until he learns that my eyes are up here!" She waves at her face, creased in aggravation, and Orochimaru inclines his head in sympathy. He's never liked the boy, though his staring is, admittedly, rather amusing sometimes. Ebisu is most certainly a closet pervert, and repeated, extended exposure to Anko hasn't helped things any.

"Perhaps we could train once you are done," he suggests, because though he isn't about to complain he has his own unpleasant morning to endure, and a trip to the Forest of Death will make both of them feel better.

"Yes, please!" Anko pounces on the suggestion without hesitation, her grin widening with vicious anticipation as she starts bouncing in her seat again. "You're the best, sensei, thanks!"

Orochimaru gives her a faint smile, bare and wan, and enjoys the light it brings to her eyes. It is…nice, to be able to cause such a reaction in someone, even though the ones he once smiled for have long since turned their backs on him because of his actions. Even though he once would have scoffed at such a feeling, back when even the bare minimum of human interaction that he indulged in was taken so very much for granted. "At six, then?" he asks, finishing the last of his tea and standing to collect the pot. It's getting light out, and he knows better than anyone that Sarutobi gets to his office as dawn breaks each day—one of the perils of being a widower whose children are long since grown.

"Yep! I'll meet you at the gates!" Anko drains her cup and bounces to her feet, then snatches the teapot from his fingertips. "Go on, sensei, you don't want to be late!"

"I am never late," Orochimaru denies, but he surrenders the pot without a fight. "Don't break any more dishes, please. I only have so many."

Her grin turns sheepish as she winces, shifting her grip so it's more secure. Orochimaru snorts softly, then leans in and touches the top of her head briefly, nearly a pat, before he pulls away again. He turns to go, but before he can make for the door there's a clatter of china set down on the counter too hard, and a small body slams into his back, making him grunt. Deceptively strong arms close around his torso, squeezing tight, and then release before he can do more than stiffen in surprise.

This is another thing he should be used to after nearly a decade, but then, Anko is never entirely predictable.

"Bye, sensei! See you later!" she says cheerfully, already turning back to the sink, and Orochimaru watches her for a moment before shaking his head and looking away.

"Have a good day, Anko," he returns. "If you kill Ebisu, come find me. I will help you hide the evidence."

That earns him a laugh, sunny and wicked. She's still giggling to herself when he firmly closes the door behind him.

Another day, he thinks a touch wearily, then runs a hand through his long hair in lieu of the sigh that wants to escape and makes for the stairs.


Leaving with the dawn means that the streets are all but empty, only a handful of shinobi and civilians to occupy them. They turn their faces away as Orochimaru passes, whisper and glare and hiss out strings of vicious hate, even though he is what this existence has made him and nothing less.

He loathes them. Quietly, subtly, because anything more obvious will earn him only a swift death, but he doesn't go out of his way to hide it. They are mindless, brainless sheep, content to follow where those before them lead, afraid of anything with sharp teeth, whether that thing is a wolf or the guard dog to keep them safe.

Perhaps he would have betrayed them, in the end. He betrayed his teacher at the very least, the morals Sarutobi tried so hard to instill. The friendship he had with Jiraiya was another victim, because he had known very well how Jiraiya would take his experiments, just how much disgust it would earn him. But he hadn't known, not really. Hadn't understood, because he never can. People are difficult, complicated. They are forever exceeding or falling short of his expectations, surprising him, because Orochimaru is above all a creature of logic and humans are not logical.

So perhaps Konoha's fears would have come true, had he been allowed to continue unimpeded on his road. Perhaps he would have turned on them. But what they do not see, do not acknowledge, is that it is one of their own who enabled him, who set his feet upon this path. It was Danzo who came to him, who provided subjects, children, for his tests of the Shodaime's cells. If Orochimaru is a monster, then Danzo must be as well.

But Danzo is locked away in a remote estate, a prisoner with all the trappings of dignity, having finally exhausted both Sarutobi's patience and his warnings. It was too much, in the end, for Danzo to turn Sarutobi's own student against him, to use Konoha's orphaned infants as fodder for some future war. And because Danzo was a war hero himself, because he was an old friend, because he had always played at being personable and human far better than Orochimaru has ever managed—

Well. Danzo is a prisoner, forced to live out the rest of his day in comfort far from Konoha's walls, with no chance of influence or escape. Orochimaru is a prisoner as well, but he is a valuable one, a soldier, a commodity to be used on missions and for intimidation. Already one of Konoha's Sannin is gone; Sarutobi is not about to lose another. And so here Orochimaru stays, a cobra kept behind a pane of glass, fangs blunted until they are to be turned against Konoha's enemies.

Perhaps he would not have betrayed these people, his people, before. But now, after seven years of taunting whispers, of fear and hatred and loathing? Now, Orochimaru would turn on them in a heartbeat, and gladly let them suffer what their blind revulsion has wrought.

No one looks at him as he slides from street-shadows into the pre-dawn gloom of the empty Administration Building, and he can't say if they do not see him or simply do not wish to. At this hour, the building is blessedly empty of worker drones and idle shinobi. The lack of ANBU in the shadows means that Sarutobi has yet to arrive, and Orochimaru wastes no time making his way up the stairs to the Hokage's office. It too is dark, empty and echoing without Sarutobi's presence to fill it, and Orochimaru automatically minds his steps for any sound as he slides through the doorway to turn on the lights.

He feels like an unwelcome ghost here, with light just beginning to filter through the wide windows and the representation of all his crushed dreams looming accusingly before him. The artificial light bounces harshly off the wood of the desk, falls like a denunciation over the black lines on his hands as he reaches out to straighten a listing stack of paperwork.

It is…not regret, exactly, that he feels. Because regret is by definition repentance, and the only thing that causes Orochimaru regret here is the consequences of his actions. It is not for the actions themselves, not for the experiments. If he were granted the opportunity to do them again, without any fear of reprisal, he might very well do so. He sought knowledge, wisdom, the power that the Shodaime's bloodline brought to Konoha, and though it was not for a noble reason his goals were not entirely selfish. They could not be, when Danzo, who claimed to love Konoha enough to dirty his hands for it, was his accomplice.

Is it possible to regret his path without regretting the steps he took along it? Orochimaru is not sure, but…he would like to think so. Because if it were his to do over, he would likely make far different choices—not because he feels his original choices were wrong, so much, but because others would be simpler. Because others would not end with him trapped like some dog of war turned collared mutt for the world's fear of his teeth.

His dreams have long since burned to ash around him. There is no way to track the cycle of rebirth as he is now, no way to find his parents if they ever return to the world of the living. There is no way to seek immortality beyond a handful of jutsus to slow cellular deterioration. There is nothing here for him, no hope and no happiness to be had, and though he never honestly expected such things it is…jarring, to suddenly have all possibility of them removed.

Gone is the man who existed to learn and grow and exceed all mortal boundaries. Gone is the boy who hoped for nothing more than recognition and an end to his own village's mistrust of him. Gone is the child who loved his parents so deeply that he tried to break apart the wheel of reincarnation in their honor.

The only one who remains is a tired, wearily furious man with no dreams to his name, who exists only to see the end of each day in grim anticipation of the next. Who exists because he cannot do otherwise, and whose only solace is the apprentice who was once his bane.

There is a murmur of voices, growing louder, and a steady beat of feet upon the stairs. Orochimaru looks up, hands stilling on the papers, and then forces himself to return to his task. He straightens Sarutobi's paperwork, organizes it into piles by type and urgency, and turns to one of the filing cabinets along the wall to retrieve what will be needed for the day's meetings. Just as his hand closes on the latch, the door swings open, and the sweep of Sarutobi's fire-red robes draws his eye.

"Good morning, Orochimaru," Sarutobi says evenly, meeting Orochimaru's eyes. He's one of the few who does, these days.

But for once, Orochimaru doesn't hold his gaze, doesn't try to say why have you made me into this with the coldness of his glare. Instead, his eyes are drawn to the spot of gold and orange resting against the Hokage's shoulder. A boy, and a recognizable one, limbs splayed everywhere in sleep and mouth open to leave a patch of drool on the ceremonial robes.

The jinchuuriki boy. Kushina's son, born already touched by the power of a bijuu, and then made a home to that same bijuu a few hours later. It is a fascinating thought, how this child will differ even from the other jinchuuriki given his origins. Will there be a difference? What effect does extended exposure to a tailed beast have on a developing fetus? The marks on the boy's face, like a fox's whiskers, say that there is an effect, but—

Sarutobi clears his throat, sharp and pointed, and Orochimaru blinks, brought back to himself. His mouth curves downward, half a grimace at being so easily distracted, pulled back to what he used to be, and he straightens, bowing to his former teacher. "Hokage-sama. Good morning."

He does not call Sarutobi "sensei" anymore. He hasn't for seven years.

There is an odd expression on Sarutobi's face, a strangeness that Orochimaru can't quite pinpoint as he watches Orochimaru, but he doesn't remark on Orochimaru's slip. Instead, he settles the jinchuuriki boy into one of the soft chairs before his desk, being careful not to wake him, and then puts a hand to his back with a faint grimace. He's not a young man anymore, should be well into his retirement, but the course of life is never smooth. Instead, it seems that Sarutobi will remain trapped in his position until Jiraiya can be persuaded to take the hat himself.

Perhaps Orochimaru should feel sympathy, but all he can manage is a grim sort of satisfaction, twisted through with bitterness. Jiraiya is the favored child, who so easily casts aside what was once Orochimaru's dream, and it burns. It burns with all the animosity that Orochimaru has cultivated over seven years of great indignities and minor ignominies in turn.

"Fugaku is scheduled for the morning, isn't he?" Sarutobi moves around his desk to take a seat, already reaching for the first stack of forms. "Do you remember the time?"

Sarutobi has never had trouble with his memory. Orochimaru doesn't quite understand the point of these questions, whether they're to ascertain that Orochimaru has read the schedule or because Sarutobi honestly doesn't know. But he has read it—he was the one to create it, after all—and answers, "Yes, at seven. There is an hour and a half set aside for him, and then a meeting with Inoichi regarding several candidates for his successor."

"That man is determined to make me feel ancient," Sarutobi mutters, discarding the S-rank mission reports in favor of three thick personnel files. He flips open the first one, adding, "When I was his age—"

"You were also contemplating retirement," Orochimaru reminds him, turning back to the filing cabinet to hide the roll of his eyes. It irks him, remembering, because he wasn't good enough. Because Sarutobi chose a boy twenty years Orochimaru's junior over his own student, over a man who had been a shinobi for forty years, had fought in two wars and never once wavered in defense of the village.

There's a brief moment of silence. When Orochimaru turns around with the necessary file in hand, Sarutobi is watching him again, expression unreadable. Orochimaru fights back the urge to snarl, carefully keeps his steps measured and his breathing even as he crosses to lay it precisely in front of Sarutobi. He knows such a sharp response is out of character for him, for this seething wraith he has become. It confuses him as well, because if nothing else this existence has taught him how to hold his tongue.

But—

He remembers a set of cups, off-white glaze with a pattern like drunken worm-trails, smashed to pieces on a scuffed floor. Remembers the shards falling like razor-edged snow into the trash bin, and the odd sense of loss he felt. Blind sentimentality, cloying and nauseating. But then, he has nothing else to tie him to his past, does he? And—

A sudden pain, sharp and startling enough to make Orochimaru yelp. He takes a swift step back to put some slack on the lock of hair that's been pulled tight and then turns, narrowed eyes seeking out his assailant.

Wide, guileless blue stares back at him, one small hand wrapped in black hair. The jinchuuriki boy beams at him, impossibly bright, and says with baffling enthusiasm, "You're really pretty, lady!"

Sarutobi chokes.

Orochimaru eyes the boy warily, noting that he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to release his hair, and says icily, "I am a man, thank you."

A long, slow blink. The boy stares at him, skepticism clear on his face. "Are you sure?" he asks doubtfully.

This is almost word-for-word the conversation he had with Anko the first time they met. Orochimaru feels a thrill of foreboding run down his spine.

"Does it matter?" he asks, just as he did of Anko that day. It is…pure curiosity, because Anko is utterly singular. There is no one even vaguely like her in this village, with her passion and blind devotion, her ruthlessness and skill balanced by a clumsy sort of careless cheer to the point that Orochimaru can never decide if it's a front or not. But if this boy gives him the same answer, or even a similar one…

Well. There isn't anything he can do. There isn't anything he wants to do, beyond a few vague lines of study that he probably wouldn't carry through with even if he were allowed. But it will be…interesting.

There is far too little that manages to be interesting in the insipid grey void of Orochimaru's endless days.

The boy's face scrunches up in serious thought, head tilting to the side as he studies Orochimaru carefully. Then, all at once, his expression clears and he grins again. "Nope!" he declares loudly. "You're really pretty either way!"

Not at all, sensei, Anko had told him, beaming, when he asked her that. Either way, I wanna be as pretty as you someday!

Not the same, but…comparable, certainly.

"Thank you," he says gravely, inclining his head and then turning back to Sarutobi, the matter dismissed for the moment.

Except that that same grip on his hair pulls him up short, and he sighs softly to himself, turning back to arch an impatient brow at the little boy still hanging onto him. "Yes? Was there something else?" he demands.

The child is staring at him, brows scrunched in contemplation. "If you look like a girl," he begins slowly, "but you kind of look like a guy too, how do people know if it's a boy or a girl who should kiss you?"

What?

Out of the corner of his eye, Orochimaru catches Sarutobi dropping his face into the cradle of his hands with an aggrieved groan.

For a moment, Orochimaru contemplates ignoring the question, or answering with something cutting and final, to show that this conversation is wearing on his nerves. But the resemblance to Anko, who is practically his only lifeline in this drowning morass of bleak forbearance and tedium, is inescapable. With another short sigh, he turns back to the boy again. "They ask," he responds dryly. Not that many have kissed him lately, or wanted to. Those willing to put up with his quirks beyond a single night of pleasure can be numbered on one hand. On one finger, even. Or they could, Before. Now there are none. Just one more small indignity in the face of everything.

"But how does that work?" the boy wants to know. His expression is just as stubborn as his mother's ever managed to be, facing down some impossible situation and determined to turn it in her favor.

"Naruto," Sarutobi cuts in, but Orochimaru raises a hand.

"It is fine, Hokage-sama," he says politely. "If you do not begrudge me the time?"

Sarutobi's eyes flicker between them, and then he sighs, reaching up to rub at his temple. "I had meant to ask you to take Naruto and find him some breakfast, and then make sure he gets to class," he acknowledges, one hand flickering in a silent, subtle signal to the ANBU hidden by the window. "I'm afraid I was too rushed for time this morning to feed him at home. Is there anything else I need for the meetings?"

Being exiled from important matters for the sake of babysitting stings like a festering splinter, but Orochimaru has had practice ignoring such slights. He inclines his head briefly, then glances at the boy before turning away. "No, Hokage-sama, you have everything. Come, then," he orders, heading for the door.

Without hesitation, the boy slides out of the chair and trots to Orochimaru's side, releasing his hair in favor of hanging onto his wrist. Orochimaru subtly tries to shake him off, but fails miserably; Naruto has a grip like a veritable leech.

"Can we get ramen?" he cheers, bouncing down the stairs as though his feet are made of springs. "I wanna eat ramen for breakfast!"

It's like Anko and her dango infatuation all over again. Thankfully, that means Orochimaru has had experience dealing with such requests, and knows the exact tone to take when he answers, "We may not. Ramen is acceptable for lunch, but if you eat it now, the lack of nutrition will inhibit your body's natural growth."

There's a moment of silence as Naruto ponders this, and then he asks, "What's 'inibits'?"

"Inhibits," Orochimaru corrects, ignoring the stares as he pulls Naruto through the lobby. It's only what he's used to, after all, and though it makes him want to bare his teeth and hiss at all of them, he's had practice restraining himself. Seven years' worth of practice. "It means 'stops'. If you eat ramen too often, your body will not grow well."

"But I can't be a shinobi if I don't grow up!" Naruto sounds horrified at the idea, just as Anko used to, and Orochimaru has to suppress a snort.

"Then we had best find something else for you," he responds, pausing at the edge of the street and trying to remember any restaurants nearby. He doesn't eat out anymore, and rarely did even before his fall from grace, so his knowledge is patchy at best. But a child who spends the vast majority of his time racing around the village would likely know. He casts a glance at Naruto and asks, "Is there another restaurant you would like to visit?"

Naruto pauses, considering this carefully. He's entirely oblivious to the dark looks they're getting, but Orochimaru isn't. He meets the more blatantly hostile stares with narrowed eyes, and feels a stab of vindictive pleasure when they hastily turn away. Whispers he cannot counter, but even with the seals he bears, outright threats are little danger to him. He has made very sure of that.

A tug on his wrist pulls his attention back to his companion, and he looks down to meet entreating blue eyes. "Can we get omurice?" the boy wants to know. He points down the street. "That shop over there has it, but they're always sold out when I go."

Hypocritical pettiness, Orochimaru has no doubt. Not outright denying Konoha's jinchuuriki, protected as he is by the Hokage, their services, but taking a subtle sort of revenge. He might admire the owners' deviousness, had he not been faced with the same thing many times himself.

But this time it's different. He is under orders from the Hokage, there is at least one ANBU guard with them, and any shop that turns them away will doubtless have to face Sarutobi's polite inquisition regarding their actions. That too is satisfying. Orochimaru lets the smirk curl at his lips, enjoys the way it makes people in the streets shy away him, and nods to the boy. "I think that is a good breakfast choice," he agrees, and allows Naruto to take the lead as they head down the street.


"Do you kiss girls and boys?" Naruto demands, once they're seated and have been served, if reluctantly. The boy is frowning, as if trying to work out the puzzle Orochimaru's words created. "If a boy asks to kiss you, do you say yes to them too?"

Orochimaru sighs, but he did (implicitly) agree to explain. He pokes unenthusiastically at his ketchup-covered omurice, contemplating how to salvage the egg from its thick coating of tomato. He's never understood the need to butcher an already delicious egg in such a way. "I only kiss boys," he answers, giving in and taking a bite. Naruto doesn't seem to share his reluctance; the boy's meal is already halfway devoured.

Naruto's face scrunches up in clear confusion, and he pauses with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. "Because you look like a girl?"

Orochimaru would really, really appreciate it if they could leave the topic of his looks behind. "Because I like to kiss boys the way other boys like to kiss girls," he counters. "It is natural, if slightly less common. There are some girls who only kiss other girls, and some people who don't care if they kiss a boy or a girl, and some people who do not want to kiss other people at all."

"You're probably safer kissing boys," Naruto informs him solemnly. "Shikamaru says that girls have cooties, an' he's really smart so it has to be true."

Orochimaru remembers when the boys in his year were going through that stage—not Jiraiya, of course, but then Jiraiya has always been an unrepentant pervert. He snorts softly, picking out a few pieces of chicken that are mostly unscathed. "Most likely," he agrees dryly, and it's more or less true. He was certainly far safer from Tsunade's wrath once she learned he was disinclined to drool over her developing breasts. Indeed, she'd started dragging him off to play dress-up whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was one of the reasons the three of them always ended up with matching outfits, when they were a team. Tsunade picked them out, forced him to model them, and then subsequently bullied Jiraiya into wearing them as well.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" is the next question, fired off without pause. "Is he pretty, too? Do you like kissing him?"

The similarities to Anko are increasing by the second. "I do not. However, if I did, I would have to like kissing him, as that is one of my requirements for being my partner."

"Huh." Naruto is looking thoughtful again, dragging his chopsticks through the leftover ketchup on his plate. He casts a hungry, nearly covert look at Orochimaru's nearly untouched meal. "Do you think I'd like to kiss a boy, too?"

Sarutobi will be overjoyed with Orochimaru's thorough corruption of the child, and he hasn't even had to work at it. He restrains another snort, and answers, "That is something you will have to decide for yourself. No one can tell anyone else who they are supposed to like." Catching another covetous look at his breakfast, he surrenders to the inevitable and pushes it across the table. If the boy is anything like Anko in the amount he eats, the sheer volume of food he can likely put away is probably staggering.

Naruto grins widely at him before pouncing on the plate and dragging it closer. "Maybe I should try with Shika," he says cheerfully around a mouthful of rice. "Since he doesn't like girls either."

The mere thought of Shikaku's scandalized expression is enough to make Orochimaru smirk vindictively. "Maybe you should," he agrees blandly, picking up his cup of tea instead.

The boy pauses in his eager cleaning of Orochimaru's plate, looking up at him with suddenly wide eyes, and says with an air of epiphany, "Oh! Are you gonna be the next Hokage? Is that why you were helping Jiji this morning?"

Instantly, the amusement sours in Orochimaru's gut. His fingers clench tight around his cup, and he has to mind each breath he takes to keep from hissing and swearing at Naruto. The Hokage likely won't take kindly to such a thing, and the ANBU watching them will no doubt report it immediately. But oh, how that questions wounds. It burns and twists at his insides like acid, so innocently applied. Like a dream just out of reach, burned to ash half a second before his fingers can grasp it.

"No," he manages, and despite his control his rage simmers just beneath the even tone. "No. I am not going to be Hokage. I am simply an assistant."

"Oh." The brief moment of disappointment is quickly buried under a beaming grin. "Well, I'm gonna be Hokage someday! That way, everyone will have to acknowledge what an awesome ninja I am, believe it!"

Look at me. Acknowledge me. And if you won't, I'll steal the highest honor in the village, and force you to.

Orochimaru understands that sentiment all too well, and it is poison in his mouth.

From the back of the shop, a raised voice suddenly hisses, "Don't tell me to be polite! Of course two monsters would get along!"

Naruto goes still, bright blue eyes dulling instantly until they're almost grey, grim with a sort of resignation that Orochimaru is intimately familiar with. He doesn't look over, doesn't move or show any reaction beyond that, but the silent resentment is clear in his eyes. From what Orochimaru has seen he is a bright, happy boy, but there is only so long happiness can hold out against such hatred. There is only so long one can pretend indifference before the miasma of creeping animosity begins to wear away even the steadiest soul. Orochimaru knows this, and better than most, because his soul was hardly ever steady. It was a sad, weak thing, only barely propped up by his team and his goals, farfetched as they were.

That Naruto can smile, can be honestly happy in such circumstances means his spirit is far stronger. But even that will begin to break eventually.

Maybe not now. Maybe not ever, if Naruto manages to escape their resentment, either by changing their minds or abandoning the village the way many jinchuuriki do. But someday, if nothing changes, he will shatter, and even Orochimaru cannot say what will be left in the aftermath.

A small hand tugs insistently at his sleeve, and Orochimaru looks down to find Naruto regarding him with solemn eyes above a grin that is clearly forced. "I'm full now," he informs Orochimaru. "Can we go?"

Orochimaru regards him in return, equally serious, because for all that Naruto is six years old, he understands hatred—and the weight of being its recipient—far better than people ten times his age ever will. "If we leave now, they will win," he reminds the boy, who undoubtedly already knows this. They both do, equally well.

The smile falters, wavers, and then steadies again. "That's okay!" Naruto offers cheerfully. He lowers his voice until he's not in danger of being overheard, and adds, "Next time I'm skipping class I'll drop a trap full of rats in their kitchen."

A child after his own twisted, vindictive, sneaky heart. Orochimaru inclines his head, surrendering to this admirable plan, and rises to his feet. Naruto bounces up with him, leaving two decimated plates and a liberal scattering of ketchup-covered rice over where he was sitting. Orochimaru doesn't bother to rebuke him for it.

"Did you like your omurice?" he asks as they leave, the faint flicker of their ANBU watchdog sliding through the shadows behind them.

Naruto contemplates this seriously for a moment, then shrugs. He reaches up and, almost unconsciously, tangles his fingers in Orochimaru's sleeve. "Eh," he says noncommittally. "Ramen's better."

Orochimaru thinks of Teuchi's easy willingness to serve anyone, provided they have the money to pay for their meal, and snorts softly. "I suppose it is," he agrees mildly, and leads the way to the Academy with Naruto grudgingly dragging his feet in his wake.


"Aw," Anko coos when he meets her at Gate 14 outside the Forest of Death that evening. "Look at you, sensei! You've got a pint-sized stalker!"

Orochimaru fixes his student with his best quelling glare. After an entire afternoon dealing with a boy in a bright orange shirt attempting to be subtle, it's quite sharp. Though, granted, the boy is better than many chuunin at staying hidden. Better than some jounin, even. And Orochimaru has trained himself, in the face of the seals he bears, to be far more observant than even the best shinobi; it's a matter of survival, after all. Perhaps he can understand why the ANBU are so often losing track of their tiny target.

"Not a word," he warns the girl, reaching for the gate, and then hesitates. If Naruto gets himself killed following them into the training ground, Sarutobi will have Orochimaru's head mounted on his wall. He grimaces, wavering, because this is their training ground, the only one guaranteed to be empty of the judgmental, whispering bastards he's seeking refuge from, but Naruto will almost certainly follow them in. And given the pair of ANBU he can see hanging back, he won't survive an attempt to knock the boy unconscious and escape that way, either.

"Keep an eye on him," he finally allows, though it's reluctant. "I would hate to have to explain his accidental demise to the Hokage."

Anko grimaces at that, because she has had plenty of experience being called before the Hokage to explain her actions. Likely not quite as much as he and Jiraiya had, when they were a team, but still more than enough to know it's a fate best avoided. "Gotcha," she confirms. "Keep the squirt from getting eaten by the wildlife. I can do that."

"Even while we play tag?" Orochimaru asks dryly, and suppresses a smile at the way Anko's face instantly lights up.

"Yes!" she cries, punching the air victoriously. "I've been wanting a rematch for months!"

Expression deeply curious, Naruto sneaks closer. Orochimaru carefully ignores him.

"We play with the usual restrictions. No more chakra than is necessary for basic traction, and no chakra-enhanced weapons." Orochimaru eyes his beaming, heavily armed apprentice, then casts a surreptitious glance at his stalker, sighs faintly, and adds, "Or poisons. There's no need to take foolish risks."

Anko pouts, but her expression clears almost immediately. The promise of blood and carnage always greatly improves her mood. "Sir, yes, sir!" she agrees cheerfully, tossing off a salute. "Flip for it, sensei?"

"Tails," he decides, allowing her to pull a coin out of her money pouch without protest. They both expect the other to cheat, at this point; now it's simply a matter of managing to do so without getting caught, which is an automatic forfeit.

He doesn't see Anko manipulate the coin as it falls between them, which is a sure sign that she's improving. Even when it lands on heads, he can't bring himself to do more than give her a faintly amused—and pleased—arch of one brow. She grins, catching the implied compliment the way she always does—one of the reasons she lasted as his student, while the rest of her genin team slid away into the anonymity of a failed shinobi's life among Konoha's civilians.

"Ten seconds, sensei," Anko reminds him, swinging open the gate and stepping back with a wide, bloodthirsty grin. "Better take it! I'm not gonna hold back, even if you're dying!"

And Jiraiya wonders why they get along so well.

He rests a hand on her violet hair, earning a bashful giggle and a coy swipe with her favorite kunai, then channels what chakra he can manage to gather into his feet and bolts for the cover of the forest.

Even he can admit that the seals he bears are the product of a genius mind. There is enough give between them to leave him chakra, if a trickle where there was once an unending flood. They do not block his power, but drain it, so he cannot break them and suddenly reclaim it. There is no hope of altering one with needles and ink unless he wishes to hurry himself to the hospital, and only the Hokage and Jiraiya have the key to remove them.

The first year he wore them felt like dying by inches, like drowning with every second stretched out into a day. He had been powerful. He had been overwhelmingly strong, one of the three greatest shinobi of his generation. Legendary, for his strength and cunning and cleverness, for his jutsus and seals and odd little poisons. He'd gone to take a step and found nothing beneath his feet but air, with no one to pull him back to solid ground. Never before had he realized just how often he touched his chakra, used little fragments of his vast reserves for simple, everyday things. Forty years of being a shinobi, of knowing every inch and ounce of his strength, had left its mark.

And then, suddenly, there was nothing left to touch.

But Orochimaru is clever. He can adapt. He has, although thought of why he's had to makes his fury rise again. He's taken his lesson from Tsunade and her strength, for though Tsunade's chakra is an immense ocean of a thing, her strength comes from pinpoint precision and careful rationing of her power. For all that Orochimaru's reserves are now smaller than a genin's, he can fight. He can win, which is a hundred times more important.

Never in his life has Orochimaru been afraid of fighting dirty, and it's served him well these last few years.

There's a faint sound of a step behind him, just the barest scuff against a fallen leaf, but without his ability to sense chakra Orochimaru has trained every sense to give him at least a little warning. He marks its position and turns sharply, channeling just a touch of chakra and leaping up the wide trunk of a tree. Below him Anko curses, and three shuriken thud into the bark, just missing his heels as he kicks off, flips over her head, and lands on another branch.

It takes half a heartbeat to regain his balance—so much harder without a steady supply of chakra, but right now he doesn't have to care about that, doesn't even want to, because this is training and Orochimaru has always loved pushing himself to his limits, loved creating new ones. Balance is hard now but that just means he's better, and even though Anko is closing he doesn't try to outmaneuver her. He smirks in her face as he throws himself backward, lets himself fall as a kunai skims a hair's breadth in front of his eyes. Gravity pulls him down, helped along as he pushes off the branch and into a controlled tumble.

A touch of chakra softens his landing enough not to break any bones, and that's the greatest difference about fighting this way. It's raw, brazen; there is no safety net if he falls, if his chakra runs out. There is only skin and muscle and forty years of training, Orochimaru's knowledge of his body and confidence that he can outthink his opponents. When Anko comes at him again, he meets her, blocks each staggeringly strong blow and redirects it, slides around the smallest gaps in her defenses and strikes at pressure points. Anko snarls, bloodthirsty and furious, and a sudden barrage of kunai drives him back into the trees, leaping up and around the thickest branches to avoid them.

Hidden behind a spray of leaves, he pauses to assess, taking stock of his strength. It's still decent, still serviceable even if it's aggravating in its minuteness. At this pace, he can keep going for at least a few more hours, and knowing Anko he will have to. She doesn't give up until she's won or been soundly defeated with no hope of turning the tables.

Another quick glance takes in Naruto's position, peeking out from behind a tree with wide eyes and an expression of awed enthusiasm on his face. His guards hover a few meters back, clearly wary, and it makes Orochimaru snort. Given the boy's expression, they'd have better luck changing a river's course with their bare hands than moving him from this spot. At least the boy is fairly out of the way, as long as he and Anko aren't too wild in their play.

A branch creaks behind him, and Orochimaru doesn't even pause, simply throws himself forward to avoid a tantō to the spine. He twists as he falls, returning the favor with a trio of kunai, and Anko yelps as one skims her temple, then follows with a snarl. Orochimaru smirks back, catches himself on a branch, and leaps back up, right past her nose. She lunges for him, but Orochimaru flips over her back and kicks out, and his apprentice goes flying off the branch.

She lands well, of course—Orochimaru would be disappointed in her if she didn't—and immediately spins to face him as he leaps down. Her high, vicious kick is strong enough that it likely would have removed his head, had he allowed it to connect, but Orochimaru was the one who taught her and slips past, his own low kick aimed at her weight-bearing leg. It earns him a kunai stabbing at his gut, and Orochimaru moves with it, folds backwards to plant one hand on the ground and grabs her arm with the other. A knee in her gut and a sharp wrench send her flying over his head, and Orochimaru rolls away from the grasping hands as she falls, tumbles back to his feet, and darts deeper into the undergrowth.

"Your way of telling me I'm getting sloppy sucks, sensei," Anko complains as he slows his steps, ghosting between the wide trunks. She sounds winded, as well as vaguely annoyed.

"Then don't be sloppy, and I won't have to tell you," Orochimaru counters, pitching his voice so it will carry without revealing his position. Another step and he's directly behind her, matching her as she turns warily. This is a game of death-blows barely pulled, combat without lying in wait. They're both good at setting traps, at planning ahead, but that's not the point here. It's an assault, thinly disguised as tag with sharp objects and strikes that can break bones.

Even though he's at her back, Orochimaru can practically see the pout on his apprentice's face. "Sensei! That's mean!"

Only Anko would waste her breath to tell him something like that. Orochimaru rolls his eyes and darts forward, two kunai spinning from his fingers even as he aims for her neck and the pressure points there. Anko hears him coming at the last moment and spins, shuriken already flying, but one kunai skims her arm and draws blood, even as Orochimaru ducks the projectiles, sets his feet, and rises with his hands already moving. One hit, another, a third that Anko just manages to dodge, and then a fourth that makes her cry out and leaves her right arm hanging useless at her side. She springs back, expression shading towards vicious, and Orochimaru has known her long enough to be aware of what's next. A hard, high leap brings him clear of the forest floor half a heartbeat before a rain of pointy things impact, raising dust and rattling the fairly slender tree.

"I'm going to kill you, sensei," Anko says cheerfully, dragging her tongue over the blade of another kunai as she turns, sharp brown eyes searching every inch of her surroundings for him even as she grins. "I'm going to cut you open and salt your guts, and then lick up every last drop of blood you bleed. Maybe I'll eat your heart while I'm at it!"

Anko will never not be an utterly adorable child. If they had even a few physical features in common, Orochimaru might be tempted to run a DNA test, just to be certain she wasn't biologically his. Regardless of the fact that he has no desire where women are concerned, he and Anko are enough alike mentally to make him wonder if there's a blood connection. Especially given her fondness for snakes.

But before he can complement her on her on her psychological intimidation, there's a sound like a gasp, a noisy clatter of footsteps through the deadfall, and a small figure in orange bursts out of the bushes with a cry of, "No! I won't let you kill him!" and hurls himself straight at Anko's back.

Anko is a trained shinobi. Moreover, she is a shinobi trained by Orochimaru, under his tutelage for nearly a decade. Her reflexes are some of the best in Konoha, possibly even the Elemental Countries, and she spins at the first sign of an attack, kunai already flying. Naruto is too far away from his guards, and only a student in his second year. He won't be able to dodge it.

Orochimaru doesn't have time to swear, but he wants to.

All the remaining chakra he has, channeled to his legs. A jump, chakra-assisted to fight the drag of air as he hurtles towards the forest floor. All of his speed used in a single landing and subsequent lunge as he grabs Naruto and spins, one hand flashing out to catch the kunai a bare foot from his chest.

The world goes still.

Across from him, Anko releases a shuddering breath and digs her hands into her hair, pulling sharply. She swears, loud and fierce, and then stalks across the clearing to stab one finger into Naruto's chest, expression furious. "What the hell was that?" she demands. "Are you stupid? Did someone bounce you on your head as a baby? If sensei wasn't so good you could have gotten him killed!"

Naruto's answer glare is utterly mulish, with an undercurrent of matching anger. "You were gonna kill him!" he protests. "You were gonna eat his heart. He bought me omurice and said it was okay for me to prank those jerks and I'm not gonna let you kill him!"

Orochimaru thinks about reminding Anko that he is hardly so easy to kill, and Naruto that he had only implied his permission for the prank, but one look at their twin pigheaded expressions shows him that he's better off just saving his breath.

"He's my sensei!" Now Anko just sounds scandalized. "I'd never really kill him, you little brat! It's intimidation and psychological warfare, not a real threat!"

When Naruto just looks confused, Orochimaru sighs, rolls his eyes, and clarifies for the boy, "It was meant to make me nervous, not a promise of what she would do. Anko—"

The girl huffs and crosses her arms over her chest, glare intensifying. "Just because sensei bought you omurice doesn't make you special!" she snaps. "He buys me dango."

"Well, he was worried about me inibitin' my growth!" Naruto snaps right back.

"Inhibiting," Orochimaru corrects—futilely, it seems, since neither one is listening to him anymore.

"He's been my sensei for nine years!"

"Then he's probably tired of you!"

"And you think he'll like you better, you snot-nosed creeper?"

"Yeah! 'Cause I'm gonna be Hokage, and I'm an awesome ninja!"

"You brat! Sensei should be Hokage, and if you're an awesome ninja why did sensei have to save you?"

This is getting into territory Orochimaru would rather leave unexplored. With a hiss of annoyance, he shoves Naruto into Anko's arms, growls, "You two deserve each other," and turns on his heel to stalk away.

He's nearly reached the treeline when there's a cry, a scuffle, and the sound of two sets of hurried steps. A moment later, small fingers latch onto his sleeve, pulling hard, even as longer arms wrap around his other elbow and hang on tightly.

"Sensei!" Anko whines. "Don't leave me with him!"

"Pretty lady guy!" Naruto complains. "She's ugly and mean!"

That earns him a screech from Anko as she goes for a weapon. Orochimaru rolls his eyes, intercepts the kunai before it can make contact, and mercilessly appropriates it, tucking it away into his own sleeve. "Enough," he orders sharply, entirely fed up with this entire situation. "Anko, remember what the Hokage will do to you if the boy is returned in less than pristine condition. Naruto, my name is Orochimaru. If you call me that ridiculous name again, I will let Anko have you, and help her hide the evidence."

Anko's grin is incredibly nasty. Naruto just sticks his tongue out at her and crosses his eyes, entirely undaunted.

Somehow, Orochimaru doesn't picture their relationship improving.

Before they can continue bickering, he cuts in. "Naruto, I am well aware that you had class today. Shouldn't you be doing your homework?"

Naruto pulls another face. "But it's boring," he whines. "I wanna learn an awesome jutsu, an' we're just learning about affinies."

"Affinities," Orochimaru corrects, unable to help himself. It was a habit with Jiraiya as well.

"Well, it's boring because you're stupid," Anko growls, still looking aggravated—and still hanging off his elbow the way she hasn't since she was fourteen. "Affinities are incredibly important if you're going to be a shinobi. After all, how can you be 'an awesome ninja' if you don't study?"

With a fierce scowl, Naruto tightens his grip on Orochimaru's sleeve, winding his fingers into the fabric, and answers, "Because I'm awesome, that's how!"

"If you don't know anything about being a ninja and try to be one anyway, you're just going to be awesomely dumb!"

"Like you?"

"Anko consistently scored among the highest in her class," Orochimaru says, and if it's a little sharp he thinks he can be excused. His temper is wearing thin. "I would not have taken her as a student otherwise."

Anko's grin is entirely triumphant. The boy makes another face at her, then pauses as an idea seems to come to him. "So," he says slowly, "if I get good grades, will you be my sensei too?"

Anko huffs. "Why would he want to be sensei to some brat?" she protests vehemently. "And besides, he's my sensei!"

"I," Orochimaru informs them testily, "am not a possession. Cease your squabbling immediately."

But…

It's an interesting thought, isn't it? The capabilities of a jinchuuriki—and the jinchuuriki of the strongest bijuu, at that. Tests don't always have to be invasive, not where existent abilities are concerned. Sarutobi can't even complain, because it was he who threw them together. And really, two monsters allying against a world that hates them is simply common sense.

Seven years Orochimaru has been a captive, a slave. There is no way for him to strike back, no way for him to free himself. But—

He slows his steps, coming to a halt at the very edge of the Forest of Death, and gently shakes Anko off. She shoots him a look, but is familiar enough with his tells even in her pique to know not to protest as he turns, dropping to one knee in front of Naruto. He meets blue eyes squarely, unafraid; he is the biggest monster here, after all. Jiraiya has told him so, whispered it the way he once framed words of love.

I'm sorry, his ghost breathes from a time long since passed. I just…I can't love a monster.

Orochimaru will deny it to his dying day, but that hurt a thousand times more than having his chakra and freedom both wrenched from him in one crippling blow. Jiraiya has always known exactly how to wound him, after all.

"I am not a kind man," he tells Naruto bluntly, because if the vague plans spinning through his head are to come to fruition, only truth will work. He won't be able to hide a single facet of himself, because Naruto may not be a genius, but he is an outcast. He knows what it is to hide bits and pieces of one's psyche, to show a front. He'll recognize it if Orochimaru tries to misdirect him, mislead him. Perhaps he is only a child, but their positions are the same.

"I am brutal," he tells the child, his last hope of freedom. "I am merciless and cruel. Anko herself barely survived my training. Why would you want me as your sensei, boy?"

Naruto doesn't hesitate to hold his gaze, though Orochimaru is aware that he looks only barely human when people face him like this. Too odd, too strange, too twisted—more snake than human, he has heard it said. Perhaps it is proof of his deviance, that he has only ever taken it as a compliment.

"But you're not," Naruto protests, and his expression is fierce. "You talk to me the same way Iruka-sensei does, only without the shouting. You bought me omurice. You didn't let the crazy lady kill me. That makes you nice."

"It doesn't," Orochimaru denies. "It means I have a mercenary concern in keeping you alive. The Hokage would have me put to death if you were killed on my watch. You cannot confuse self-interest with kindness; it will end your life very quickly in the shinobi world."

Naruto considers this for a long moment, brows scrunching together. "But," he answers carefully, "if no one else is gonna be nice to me, even for bad reasons, then why shouldn't I go along with it? Because—because I want you to be my sensei for bad reasons. I want to get strong enough to be Hokage. I'm not asking you just 'cause I wanna be your friend."

Anko laughs, crouching down beside them with a grin. "I'll let you use me so I can use you back," she offers mirthfully. "Shinobi lesson number six, isn't it, sensei?"

Orochimaru gives her an amused glance before turning back to Naruto. "Well," he says mildly. "How about a deal, Naruto? Improve your studies. I will help you, train you. I will make you powerful. And in return, you will become Hokage. And once you do, you will free me."

That earns another frown, this time worried. "Are you a prisoner?" the boy demands, halfway between concerned and indignant. "Does Jiji know? 'Cause that's wrong, and the Hokage shouldn't let that happen!"

Orochimaru gives him a small, wry smile. "Your first shinobi lesson," he says, rising smoothly to his feet. "Rule nine: nothing is ever black and white. There are two sides to every story, and the only reason you will believe one side over the other is because it aligns most closely with your own morals. I am a criminal, Naruto. This is my punishment for killing children, even though I was given permission to do so by one of the leaders of the village. Perhaps the Hokage was justified in subjecting me to this; perhaps he was not. Either way, that is my condition for training you. I will help you become Hokage, and you will free me. Agreed?"

Those blue eyes rise to meet Orochimaru's again, and this time there's only stubbornness within them. "Only if you don't hurt the village!" Naruto insists. "If I free you, you've still got to be a loyal shinobi, okay?"

Orochimaru hesitates, his own eyes narrowing as he studies the boy. That is…an interesting condition, especially for a boy who is so often called a monster all but to his face. He weighs it carefully, because he is not nearly so forgiving as this child, but…

But to have the chains on him broken, to have the freedom to step beyond Konoha's walls without a timer counting down the seconds to his death—that is worth surrendering his revenge. That is worth far more than retribution.

"Very well," he agrees. "I accept your terms. Do you accept mine?"

"Yes!" Naruto bounces on his heels, grinning widely, and then darts forward. Orochimaru has barely a second to brace for impact before skinny arms are wrapping around his waist and squeezing tight. "Thank you, sensei!"

It's Anko all over again, with the addition of a bijuu-worth of power and no head for studying. This will either end gloriously or with Konoha as a smoldering, smoking ruin.

For the first time in seven years, Orochimaru can honestly say he's interested in the outcome.

(He does spare a single moment to feel very, very sorry for whatever poor, beleaguered victim ends up as Naruto's jounin sensei before dismissing the sentiment entirely.)