Rating: T+

Warnings: Blood, weird angst, mentioned child death via experimentation, moral ambiguity, language, Anko, an Orochimaru-style panic attack, self-harm while in said panic attack, etc.

Word Count: ~15,100 (complete)

Pairings: Jiraiya/Orochimaru

Summary: Part two of Cry monsters can be human. Of confrontations, choices made, and a small change that could very well shake the foundations of the world.

Notes: This somehow ended up being a lot angstier and more philosophical than the first installment, and also ridiculously emotionally involved to write, which would be why nothing else has been updated recently. It just kind of took over, and somehow I can't even regret it. I like this 'verse. So! Orochimaru is suffering the Naruto Effect, Naruto is becoming damned scary, Anko is a good (if violent) big sister, Jiraiya has no idea what's happening anymore, and Tenzō is just along for the ride.

There is an explicit panic attack in this fic, though given who's having it, it's rather more violent than most. If you want to give it a miss, once you get to the first scene break, skip down to the paragraph that starts "And then there's something". It's not terribly triggering, I think, but please take care of yourself if it might be a problem. :)

Burn Your Castles Down

"Sensei, we should take the squirt shopping!"

Long exposure to Anko's particular brand of mad, cheerful menace keeps Orochimaru from wincing, but it's a near thing. Glancing up, he arches a brow at his apprentice, who is currently draped over his sofa, and waits for an explanation. There always is one, with Anko, though the logic behind it can sometimes be…lacking.

Because Anko has had just as much exposure to him, she reads his question in the silence and beams broadly, tossing her legs over the back of the couch and twisting to look at him upside down, violet hair tumbling loose to the floor. "The squirt," she says again, waving a hand. "He's always wearing that ugly orange piece of crap. It makes me want to stab something. No good shinobi wears orange!"

Orochimaru refrains from pointing out that wanting to stab something is more or less Anko's reaction to everything, be it overwhelming cuteness or blind rage. Instead, he gives a noncommittal hum and turns a page of his book. "It appears not to have hindered him," he reminds the girl. "He certainly evades his ANBU guards with enough skill."

"Sensei!" Anko whines, smacking her fists into the cushions. "It's ugly and makes my eyes bleed! If you tell the little ingrate to change, he will, so do it! Please!"

The spectacle of his twenty-year-old apprentice on the verges of a tantrum is amusing enough that Orochimaru finally lifts his gaze from the analysis of the tailed beasts' chakra that's been occupying his attention. He surveys Anko carefully, taking in the stubborn set to her mouth, the angle of her chin, and the glitter of challenge in her eyes, and realizes that this matter isn't going to be so easily written off. With a faint sigh, he sets his book aside and gives her his full attention.

"Naruto is decent in terms of stealth," he says, trying to understand her reasoning—he knows she must have some, to volunteer to spend more time with the boy. Their rivalry—first for his attention, and now apparently just for the sheer enjoyment of it—has hardly diminished in the past year and a half. "Especially given that he is eight, and still a student. Many chuunin would be hard-pressed to manage as well as he does."

"And imagine how much better he could be if he ditched the orange," Anko insists. "He's good now, but you always told me that people can always improve, and not doing so is just asking to die."

This is true. Orochimaru himself is a good example of it; without his chakra, he's come to rely entirely on agility, speed, and kenjutsu, and has pushed himself far beyond where he once stood in each of those areas. The incentive to change has given him room to grow in previously unconsidered directions. It is not mastery of every jutsu, or immortality, or an understanding of reincarnation, but…for now it is enough.

His imprisonment has taught Orochimaru how to take pride in small things, where once he only considered grand deeds to be worthy of acknowledgement.

Orochimaru hums, thoughtful this time, and rises to his feet. He turns the matter over in his mind as he drifts into the cramped kitchen, filling the kettle and setting it on the stove. Behind him, there's a thump and a muffled yelp as Anko goes tumbling off the couch, but a moment later she bounces in after him looking none the worse for wear. Because she understands the way his mind works, she doesn't press for an answer, but instead goes to rummage through his tea cupboard.

"What would you like, sensei?" she asks cheerfully. "There's…let's see, boring old green, that smoked stuff, yucky herbal, super bitter black,—ooh, jasmine!"

Orochimaru rolls his eyes, but can't fight the faintly fond smile that tugs at his mouth. "The jasmine will be fine," he says, and Anko grins at him as she wiggles off the counter, clutching the small jar in her hands.

"Thanks, sensei! I love jasmine!" She hands it off, then heads for the teapots he keeps on a shelf near the door. Orochimaru debates for a moment whether he wants to look, then decides he should probably face the possible destruction of his best china in a forthright manner and trains an eye on his apprentice as she sorts through the pots. The one she finally settles on is faintly discolored with age, heavy iron lined with porcelain, and he relaxes faintly, no longer prepared to lunge and catch the thing when Anko drops it. She's not exactly clumsy, but her enthusiasm often has her moving faster than her body can quite match.

Accepting the pot from her, Orochimaru catches a faint sound from the hallway beyond his apartment, and says mildly, "Get the door, Anko."

She gives him a confused look, but the next second a knock echoes through the room, and she laughs. Leaning up on her tiptoes, she gives Orochimaru a loud, showy kiss on the cheek, says, "That's my sensei!" and bounds out of the room.

Really, he should be used to Anko's bursts of affection by now, Orochimaru thinks wryly, rubbing off the traces of lipstick. He pulls the kettle off the heat as it starts to whistle, then measures out the pearls of green tea and pours the water. Muted through the walls, he can hear Anko unlocking the door, her cheery greeting edged faintly with wariness. A man's voice answers her, low and polite but slightly strained, and Orochimaru collects an extra cup on his way out to the main room.

"Tenzō," he says cordially. "I was just making tea. Would you care to join us?"

The ANBU in the doorway glances up, dark eyes flickering down over Orochimaru's arms and lingering on the seals there. It's a quiet weekend, and Orochimaru has no duties, so he refrained from covering them this morning as is his usual habit, assuming no one but Anko or possibly Naruto would see. Tenzō's appearance is unexpected; Orochimaru had thought he was on a long mission.

"Thank you," Tenzō says after a moment, gaze darting back up to Orochimaru's face. He looks weary, still dressed in his uniform with his tantō on his back, and as he steps in Orochimaru catches the faintest hint of a limp.

Prudently, he gestures the boy to the nearest seat, and asks with perfect disinterest, "Do I need to find my medical kit? I'd prefer you not bleed on my chairs."

That gets him the faintest hint of a smile, more a spark of amusement than anything. "I'm not bleeding anymore. But these are awful anyway—I don't think blood would make them any worse."

They are. Old, rickety, haphazardly repaired, because for all of Orochimaru's many skills woodworking isn't one of them. Still, he prefers not to venture out any more often than he must, and whatever craftsmen could sell him better furniture always seem to be mysteriously sold out when he inquires.

"Two months in the wilderness has done nothing for your manners, I see." Orochimaru arches a brow at the boy, who colors faintly and ducks his head, muttering an apology.

"Hmph!" Anko flounces into the other free chair, chin raised and a scowl on her face. "What do you even want, tree-boy?" she demands. "Sensei and I were having a quiet day, and you're interrupting."

Tenzō bristles faintly, but his expression remains mild through sheer force of will. "I need a little help with my Mokuton," he counters. "Orochimaru said I could come by any time."

Anko opens her mouth, but Orochimaru waves her off before she can say anything. She's always defensive of him, and given that he and Tenzō started their association poorly, to say the least, it always comes out especially strongly at these times.

"Of course," he answers. "I assume something went wrong on your mission?"

Dipping his head, Tenzō accepts the cup of tea Orochimaru pours for him and wraps his fingers around the porcelain. "I tried to create a wood clone, but it didn't work," he explains, mouth pulling tight in frustration. "The clone exploded the second I finished the hand-sign, and I ended up having to resort to a shadow clone. It almost got me caught."

The problem is more interesting than Orochimaru had expected—it can't be an instability in the cells, because his work is flawless, and Tenzō's ready adaptation to the Wood Release Hashirama's DNA grants him is without equal. There is nothing in his makeup that can break down; the changes are self-sustaining, which means it must be something else entirely. Tapping long fingers against the tabletop, Orochimaru considers for a moment, and is just about to answer when loud banging rattles one of his windows.

With a sigh, Orochimaru reaches up to rub briefly at his temples, then rises. On the other side of the glass, a small figure in bright orange and blue gives him a cheerful wave, and Orochimaru restrains a roll of his eyes as he crosses to the window and drags it open.

"Naruto," he mildly. "I see you've mastered tree-walking."

Apparently unconcerned by the six stories of empty air beneath his daring perch, Naruto beams. "I did it, sensei!" he agrees, wriggling in through the gap and dropping to the floor. There are leaves and twigs caught in his hair, and the amount of dirt on his clothes speaks of many painful encounters with the ground, but his enthusiasm doesn't seem at all diminished. "I got all the way to the top of that big tree in the training grounds! Do you want to come see? Can I show you? Does this mean I can start learning really awesome jutsus now? This is awesome! I can get Jiji with so many new tricks now, thank you for showing me, sensei!"

The flood of words would be disconcerting to anyone who hasn't been around the boy for a year and a half, or Anko for a full decade. Orochimaru just waits it out, arching a reluctantly amused brow at the boy, until he finally runs out of questions. Then he reaches out with a faint smile to drop one hand on top of Naruto's head.

"Good," is all he says, quiet but firm, and from the look on Naruto's bright face he might as well have written entire novels singing the boy's praises.

(So easy, he thinks. It would be so easy to make him loyal, to slowly, lovingly sever every last tie he has to the village. A few words, dropped at random. Hints and tantalizing clues, feeding his resentment and loneliness and divorce from everyone else. Naruto would be a force of nature, if he could give up his humanity. The boy learns quickly, eagerly, and has a power that can't be exhausted. If only, if only, but—

If it's so easy, Orochimaru wonders, why hasn't he done it yet?)

"Thanks, sensei," Naruto says again, quiet but even more forceful. He twists his fingers into Orochimaru's loose sleeve, tugging slightly—a habit Orochimaru hasn't broken him of even now.

Given what the boy just accomplished, Orochimaru doesn't try to shake him off, just this once. Instead, he nudges the boy towards the kitchen and says, "There's ramen in the cupboard, and the water in the kettle is still hot. Eat. I know you skipped breakfast."

It was a guess, but from the way Naruto smiles sheepishly it was a correct one. He throws himself forward, wrapping his arms around Orochimaru's waist and knocking the man back a step, then bolts for the kitchen with a cry of, "Ramen for breakfast, yeah!"

At this point, Anko's automatic, "Shut up, brat, and be polite to sensei! Stop manhandling him!" as she follows him is practically just background noise.

Still. If it keeps him from demanding to be dragged out to Ichiraku every day, Orochimaru will take the effusiveness.

Sighing faintly, he returns to his seat and picks up his teacup, only to find Tenzō staring at him, brows practically touching his hairline. Orochimaru shoots him a sharp glare, but by now Tenzō is all too familiar with the menace of it and doesn't react. His dark eyes track the bouncing ball of orange through the kitchen, then slide back to Orochimaru, and he asks, "That's the Uzumaki boy?"

Orochimaru inclines his head, keeping half of his attention on his two students as they bicker over ramen flavors. He's learned the hard way that he should always be ready to intervene whenever they're in close quarters. "It is. I assume your captain has spoken of him?"

That gets him a faintly wry smile before Tenzō buries his nose in his tea. "Not really. Kakashi-senpai doesn't talk much in general."

Hatake is very much a self-made martyr, blaming himself for every bit of ill fortune in his life. It would be admirable if it weren't so aggravating; as it is, the penchant reminds Orochimaru far too much of another white-haired fool. Far too much of one last, pained smile given just seconds before he uttered a curse Orochimaru has never been able to escape from.

I just…I can't love a monster.

His knuckles are white against the painted porcelain of his cup. Orochimaru takes a breath and lets it out slowly, deliberately, then lifts the cup and takes a careful sip. Behind him, Anko snarls out a threat, Naruto counters with a shrieked insult as he scampers away from whatever she's trying to brain him with this time, and Orochimaru closes his eyes, focusing on them instead of the past.

He hates Jiraiya. Hates him so fiercely and desperately that it's almost come right back around to being love.

"Do you have any more duties for the day?" he asks instead of responding to that statement. "There are several tests that might determine the nature of your problem."

Tenzō eyes him carefully, but he also doesn't comment, draining the rest of his tea. "I'm on medical leave for the next week. The Hokage thought it might just be tiredness, but it doesn't feel that way to me."

Sarutobi is a fool, relying on his vague memories of Hashirama's power to try and explain Tenzō's. For all that they share DNA, though, the two men are entirely separate. Mokuton is like any other affinity; it manifests in different ways, with different strengths. Despite the fact that Tenzō is exceedingly strong and skilled, Hashirama's strength never came entirely from his Wood Release. He was a powerful shinobi in general, stronger even than Uchiha Madara, and it was what made his Mokuton so great.

Tenzō is very good, but he's still an average shinobi. Hashirama was strong enough to be called a God of Shinobi, one of only three men to earn the title, and Orochimaru knows the two can't be otherwise compared. It's something he's finally drilled into Tenzō's thick skull, after the aggravation of the boy comparing himself to Hashirama and despairing of their differences one too many times.

"You are in the position to know best," he agrees, glancing over as Naruto hurls himself into an empty chair, Anko a pace behind him with a cutting board raised over her head and an expression of pure murder on her face. "Children," he says sharply, and Anko aborts her lunge, turning it into a flip that carries her over the table to land with a thud. The man in the apartment below starts shouting, but it's a common enough occurrence that not even Tenzō notices.

"Sorry, sensei," the two chorus meekly, Anko slinking into her chair with a chastised expression, while Naruto guiltily straightens in his seat and sets his bowl of ramen on the table.

If Orochimaru had an ounce less will, these two would age him before his time. He looks between them, unimpressed, and then turns his attention back to Tenzō. "The Forest of Death should be empty," he suggests. "We can leave now."

"Sensei!" Naruto protests through a mouthful of noodles. At Orochimaru's glare, he hastily slurps them down, sits up straight, and says, "Sorry. But sensei, I wanted to train with you today! You don't have to work for Jiji, right?"

"Hey!" Anko snaps. "If sensei doesn't want to train with you, he doesn't have to! Besides, I'm sure he'd much rather play tag with me!"

"Who'd wanna play with you, ugly?"

"What the hell was that, brat?!"

"You heard me!"

"Fuck it, you're dead! I'm gonna kill you, pipsqueak!"

"Try it, hag! I'm a better ninja than you in my sleep!"


Deftly, Orochimaru catches the back of Anko's shirt as she attempts to lunge across the table, snatches the collar of Naruto's jumpsuit as he makes to dive under it, and gives them both a firm shake. "Enough. I have agreed to assist Tenzō. After I am finished with that, we shall see, but until then you will behave yourselves."

The picture of maturity, Anko sticks her tongue out at Naruto, who sticks his thumbs in his ears and waggles his fingers as he returns the gesture. Orochimaru rolls his eyes, releasing them, and adds, "If you finish your tea, Anko, you may accompany us. Naruto, eat your ramen first. Perhaps Anko will assist you with your aim when throwing kunai while I am otherwise occupied."

Immediately, Anko starts gulping her tea, while Naruto does the same with his noodles. Orochimaru pushes to his feet, deeming it safe to step away now, and snorts softly at the expression on Tenzō's face. The ANBU is a little wide-eyed, and as Orochimaru watches he pushes his chair back a few inches to remove himself from the line of fire. Really, Orochimaru would have more sympathy, but they're being relatively well-behaved today. He feels no guilt in retreating to his room, leaving Tenzō to deal with both of them.

Changing clothes before he goes outside is a matter of habit by now, if still enough to make Orochimaru faintly angry, but he would rather deal with this low-level seething than the stares and whispers his seals will draw. He's learned, too, that the long sleeves hide his hands well, concealing motions, and given that Orochimaru's tells are mostly in the motion of his fingers, in clenched fists and white knuckles and the fine tremble of fury in the otherwise steady digits, he appreciates the simple concealment. It's not enough to hide from people who know him, but there are few enough of those left in the village.

Long fingers pause on the clasps of his grey robe, and Orochimaru looks away, out the small window above his bed. The thought of familiarity sparks another, and he wonders, for the first time in several years, how Tsunade is. Not where—he's often wondered that, driven to it by his infuriating confinement—but…how she's coping. She was broken when she left, all but shattered into unrecognizable pieces. Nawaki's death had started it, created the fractures in the granite of her strength, but for all the grief it caused her, she used that pain. It drove her onward, pushed her higher and harder and made her better.

But Dan—Dan's death destroyed her. They day she left, there was nothing in her of the Tsunade that Orochimaru knew. Nothing at all of the strong, steady woman she had been, so determined and loyal to Konoha. Just—a shadow, broken and grieving, who fled towards the horizon with her demons nipping at her heels.

She knows nothing of the situation now, gone well before the start of the Third Shinobi War. Nothing of his disgrace, unless Jiraiya has since found her and deigned to share the details. Orochimaru wonders how she'd hate him, if she knew. Because she would, and he knows it. Without a doubt, without hesitation, she would loathe his actions, and him in turn. Tsunade is a predictable woman, and Orochimaru understands her as well as any. There would be no mercy in her, if she learned what he has done.

And maybe…maybe that is a regret, where he had not thought to look for one before. For all his lack of humanity, for all his ruthlessness, she was still his teammate once, and he doesn't want to cause her pain.

The revelation is startling, almost unnerving, and Orochimaru frowns down at the thick black lines that wind around his hands, wondering why the thought comes now, so many years after the fact. So many years after his last glimpse of Tsunade, even. There is little chance of her returning to the village, and even less of them meeting outside its walls.

(He does not allow himself to think of Nawaki, the little boy who shared Naruto's dreams and died under Orochimaru's command. Does not think of Tsunade's warm, kind smile, so like the smile of a lonely little boy finally offered a bit of positive attention.)

Given those factors, though, it doesn't matter. He will not see her, and she will not see him, and Orochimaru will never have to face her fury, her betrayal. Shaking himself, he returns to the frogs of his robe, doing up the high collar and releasing his hair from its loose braid. There is no sound of chaos from the other side of the door, but even so Orochimaru doesn't take the time to brush his hair out. He returns quickly, and is almost surprised to find peace, Naruto and Tenzō in the kitchen washing dishes, Anko checking her pockets for the ever-necessary medical supplies. Since neither she nor Tenzō have any skill at medical ninjutsu, Naruto has yet to learn it, and Orochimaru no longer has the chakra to preform it, they're resigned to bandages and salves whenever injuries occur.

Orochimaru is about to offer to replace whatever Anko is missing—there's certain to be something, because for all her brilliance she is just as scatterbrained in the mornings as he is—when Naruto's voice rings out from the kitchen.

"You mean sensei gave you superpowers?"

Orochimaru goes still, eyes closing, and just barely restrains a sigh. Of course Naruto would find the one delicate spot and stomp right in to confront it. Really, by now Orochimaru shouldn't have expected anything different.

This, though—this is something he and Tenzō have never spoken of. They avoid it, slip around it, and Orochimaru knows why. Tenzō is the victim of his schemes, a wildly successful experiment, a breakthrough, and scarred from it. There's no space in Orochimaru given to self-deception; Tenzō comes to him because there is no one else who understands his Mokuton, and in the last eight years they've arrived at something of a truce. They're even mostly cordial, bordering on friendly, but…the past lies between them, and Orochimaru knows it always will.

"Naruto," he calls, interrupting. "How early did you start training this morning?"

Naruto pokes his head around the doorway, looking distinctly guilty. "I don't know, sensei. Kinda early?"

"Because you slept in the training grounds," Orochimaru concludes, arching a brow at his apprentice. When Anko opens her mouth, no doubt to offer something mocking judging by her gleeful expression, he turns his expression on her and adds, "Well. I think that reminds of someone else at this age, don't you, Anko?"

Anko flushes dull red. "Sensei!" she protests. "I was never like that little brat!"

"And I am not like the hag!" Naruto chimes in, equally red. The two glare at each other in offended horror, bristling.

Orochimaru would beg to differ. The similarities are practically uncanny. Before they can start another fight, though, he asks, "Naruto, you have your kunai?"

Instantly, the boy brightens again. "Yep!" He proudly opens his weapons pouch to show off the neatly arranged weapons. "I snagged some of Jiji's! He said it was okay."

Somehow Orochimaru very much doubts that. It's more likely he gave Naruto permission to look at them, or perhaps take one, and Naruto extrapolated from there. He's terrifyingly accomplished at that. Since it's a good skill for a shinobi to have, Orochimaru says nothing, just touches his hair as he steps past towards the door. "Good. Anko, you'll help with his aim?"

Anko's grin is just short of murderous as she loops an elbow around Naruto's neck. "Sure!" she agrees with deadly cheer. "We can play—"

"I said his aim, Anko, not his ability to dodge."

"Ah, phooey." The grin shifts into a pout and she starts stuffing things back into her pockets. "Fine, sensei. I'll teach him."

"Good girl. Thank you, Anko."

Orochimaru assumes he's not supposed to see the faint, pleased smile that's tugging at her lips. Obligingly, he looks to Tenzō, who's just emerging from the kitchen. Noticing the glance, Tenzō bobs his head and follows Orochimaru out the door, leaving his two apprentices to the beginnings of another bickering match.

The streets outside the apartment are crowded, which is to be expected at midmorning on a weekend. Habit has Orochimaru immediately turning, slipping out of the mass of people even as they part around him and making for a quieter side-street. Tenzō matches his steps, not protesting, and a small, bitter, vicious part of Orochimaru wonders how much of it is to save his reputation, to avoid being seen with Konoha's collared viper. He doesn't ask, largely because he doesn't want to know.

"Is it really safe to leave them there alone?" Tenzō asks after several blocks. His tone is morbidly curious, and he casts a look back at the apartment as though expecting it to go up in flames at any moment.

Orochimaru snorts, ignoring the dark look he's getting from a woman on the corner. She's not even worth the effort to glare. "Despite appearances, they know better than to destroy my apartment. One might even go so far as to say they are grudgingly fond of each other."

Tenzō huffs out a breath of amusement. "Very grudgingly," he says dryly. A hesitation, and then he asks carefully, "How did you meet the boy?"

Orochimaru casts him a sharp look, and it takes effort for his shoulders not to pull stiff. "The Hokage assigned me to watch him one morning," he says coolly. "The boy refused to leave. It is simpler to indulge him than deal with his anger should I deny his requests for training."

Not quite looking at him, Tenzō hums in understanding. "I always wondered," he says unexpectedly, "just why Anko stayed with you, knowing what you did. Knowing what you could do." When Orochimaru doesn't answer, Tenzō shifts his dark gaze over to him. "I remember her from my year in the Academy. She didn't have a lot of friends."

Anko is brilliant kunoichi, practically a monster in terms of her cunning, determination, and ability. Those are traits she's always possessed, and Orochimaru is all too aware that such things rarely win children points with their peers. Even on her genin team, Anko stood apart, alone. And…perhaps he gravitated towards her, favored her, for that reason, even beyond her promise. The other two genin were quickly forgotten, discouraging and average at best, but Anko—she was like him, brilliant and alone, and—

Well. Animals, when wounded and outnumbered, will draw together. Orochimaru assumes that's what happened with them.

Clearly taking his silence for an answer, Tenzō smiles faintly. "I thought so. Naruto's another one."

Frustration and pique in equal measure sharpen Orochimaru's tongue, and he snaps, "Be careful, Tenzō, or someone might count you among that number as well."

Surprisingly, the boy doesn't bristle, or even stiffen. "They might," he allows, eyes shifting to the horizon. "Did you know Kakashi-senpai thought you were forcing me to meet with you still? I told him you weren't, that you were helping me with my Mokuton, and he offered to tell the Hokage what was going on. I still don't think he believes me."

Orochimaru isn't surprised. Hatake is a brilliant, devoted man, blinded by his feelings to the point where everything else slips by him. He plays at being an emotionless killer, but he's teetering on the edge of breaking. It would make him interesting, except that Orochimaru already knows very well how this situation will end. Kakashi will either break or find something to live for, and both outcomes are sure to be equally boring.

"I take it you have a point in telling me this, Tenzō?" Orochimaru asks, faintly sour.

With a faint shrug, Tenzō offers, "My Mokuton is fine. If I wanted to, I could work through my problems on my own, and it wouldn't be all that much harder. I still have nightmares about your labs, about watching the other test subjects die and being the only survivor, but… It's been years. You've been punished, and will be for the rest of your life. And…you're different now, from how you used to be. Maybe Anko has to do with that, or Naruto, but I don't think it's a bad change."

Automatically, Orochimaru's hand goes to his throat, to the wide black collar of ink and power that keeps him chained. It will kill him, should he step outside Konoha's walls without permission for more than a few minutes. Jiraiya made very, very certain of that. Orochimaru will never forget the look in his eyes as he stepped back, lowering the ink-stained brush. A vicious satisfaction that Orochimaru would more readily have expected from himself, a deep, weary sadness, a quiet sort of resignation and loss.

I can't love a monster.

Sharp sparks of pain make him lift his hand, pulling his nails away from his skin and taking a breath to settle himself. Tenzō is watching him, somewhere between wary and curious, but Orochimaru ignores him, getting his emotions back under control. He's been thinking about Jiraiya too much lately, likely because of Naruto. Naruto is Jiraiya's godson, and there's a certain shade to his smile, a brightness to his laughter, that puts Orochimaru in mind of his former friend. The boy is very much like himself, too, but…there are similarities, and Orochimaru has been finding them all too often of late.

It's a relief to see the forest looming before them, hushed and green. The shadows beneath the trees only grow deeper as noon approaches, and Orochimaru feels more at home here than anywhere else in the village. He unlocks the gate, steps in, and takes a full breath that for once settles easily in his lungs. Training Ground 44 is dangerous and deadly and never friendly to intruders, and Orochimaru would live here if the Sandaime gave him the choice.

"Make a clone," he directs Tenzō, as soon as they're a safe distance from the gate. Anko will enter from the same one—it's the one they always use—and he doesn't want Naruto to get caught in the crossfire if any of Tenzō's jutsus go out of control. Sarutobi would have his head. Though it does raise questions as to whether jinchuuriki are more susceptible to Mokuton techniques than they would be to normal ones. Given the bijuu's chakra and the Kyuubi's susceptibility to Hashirama's abilities—

Carefully, Orochimaru tucks that thought away for later contemplation, bringing his attention back to Tenzō as the boy shifts into a ready stance. His hands flicker up, and a moment later the clone splits off from his body. Orochimaru can't sense chakra with any degree of reliability anymore, but even he can feel the sudden unstable jerk of power going out of control, and ducks just a moment before the clone detonates in a shower of splinters.

In the aftermath, there's only the quiet patter of wood shards hitting the ground. Orochimaru rises to his feet, brushing off his robes, and frowns thoughtfully at the destruction. "Hm. Your other techniques have been working?"

Tenzō nods, looking frustrated, though there's a flicker of something like fear in his eyes. "All the other things I've tried are fine. It's just the clone. Is it—do you think my DNA is breaking down?"

"No," Orochimaru says slowly, circling the boy. "Your body has been stable since you were a child, and you certainly wouldn't be able to use other techniques if that was the case." He ignores the sudden, relieved rush of tension that leaves Tenzō's body, making him slump, and turns the problem over in his mind. In the distance, the metal gate creaks, and Naruto's voice rises, cheerful and exuberant. Anko matches him, and Orochimaru closes his eyes, tuning out the thud of kunai striking wood.

"Create a wall," he says finally, glancing up at Tenzō. "Nothing large, I simply need to see the process."

This time the creation is flawless, rising from the ground in a rush and settling into place, solid and immovable. Orochimaru turns the motions over in his mind, tapping his fingers against his elbow. "Have you been feeling under the weather?" he asks, arching a brow at the boy.

Confusion furrows Tenzō's brow. "Not that I've noticed," he admits. "But the mission ended poorly, and I'm bruised all over. I honestly can't tell."

"Your wood clones are perfect copies of you, right down to your DNA, and they're far more…delicate than any other type of clone. Not in their sustainability, or durability, but in that they are a perfect mirror." Orochimaru bends down, collecting a handful of splinters, and then straightens again, turning them over in his hand. "If your system is currently fighting off a virus, I assume your clone would reflect that. Clear your mind. Breathe, and don't allow your frustration through. Then try again. See how it feels."

Tenzō scratches the back of his head, frowning. "Well, I don't get sick often," he allows. "Do you really think that's all it is?"

Gracefully, Orochimaru sidesteps a stray kunai that comes whistling past his ear. "Even simple colds can affect chakra balances," he confirms. "You need more control than you would normally use, I think, but that's all it should be. The wood clones are your most involved technique, from an outside perspective, and therefore the trickiest to perform with a fluctuating chakra system. Extra concentration will fix the problem." He catches a second kunai that comes too close, and directs a frown towards where laughter is rising from the trees. One more of those and he's going to have to assume it's deliberate.

Tenzō chuckles softly at his expression, then brings his hands up again. He breathes, centering himself, and slowly shapes the necessary hand-signs. His form blurs, then settles, and a moment later mirror images are staring at Orochimaru. Casting an assessing glance at his clone, Tenzō waves it away, and then drops to sit on the ground, stretching his bad leg out in front of him with a grimace.

"Maybe I'll stick to other techniques for now," he sighs. "It hasn't taken that much effort to create a clone in a long time."

"You have a week to recover," Orochimaru reminds him, "and you're fit and relatively healthy. Your Mokuton will return to normal shortly." He catches movement out of the corner of his eye, but doesn't waver, and a kunai thuds into the ground between his feet. With a faint sigh, he raises his voice and says, "Anko."

Twin giggles are his only response, and half a second later both of his apprentices come hurtling out of the trees. They throw themselves at him, shrieking battle cries, but Orochimaru is all too familiar with their tactics and spins, deftly dodging Naruto's grabbing hands. Anko he kicks in the side, knocking her off course, before he channels just a touch of chakra and leaps for an overhanging bough.

Safe on his perch, he raises a brow as Naruto and Anko pull themselves off the ground, and asks coolly, "Just what do you imagine you're doing, children?"

Anko snickers, even though she's rubbing her ribs. "Only playing, sensei," she answers cheerfully. "Are you done with tree-boy? Can we play tag now? I want to be it!"

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether she's twenty or twelve. No, Orochimaru thinks with a restrained sigh, most of the time it's hard to tell. And Naruto has only made her worse. Though that's likely to be expected, since about all the training Orochimaru can provide without alarming Sarutobi is teaching Naruto to prank people more efficiently—a surprisingly effective method, Orochimaru has come to realize—or a more harmless version of their usual ninja tag. Anko revels in getting to be as childish as she's able in the name of training.

"I'm not invited to play?" Tenzō asks mildly, raising a brow at her. "Why? Are you scared that I'll win?"

Predictably, Anko bristles like a wet cat. "Win?" she scoffs. "Ha! Tree-boy, you couldn't even begin to keep up with me and sensei. I'll bet even the brat could beat you!"

Prudently, Orochimaru steps in before someone can get their nose broken. He honestly couldn't say who would win in a fight between them, and though the outcome would doubtless prove interesting, he'd rather not be forced to find another training ground when this one is inevitably destroyed in the battle.

"You're welcome to join us, Tenzō," he puts in, silencing Anko's protests with a raised brow, and rolling his eyes at Naruto's cheer. "However, we play with minimal chakra, and it is primarily a test of agility and taijutsu."

Tenzō offers him a faint, rueful smile. "All for the best right now, probably," he says. "Are there teams, or is it a free-for-all?"

It's tempting to pick the former option and assign Tenzō and Anko to their own team, just for the sheer aggravation it would cause them both, but Orochimaru refrains. His resentment of Konoha is great enough that he cares little for being on speaking terms with the rest of the village, but Tenzō is one of the few outlets Orochimaru has for his scientific curiosity. He might not be exactly what Orochimaru's experiments were geared towards creating, but he's a masterpiece in his own right.

It is…pleasing, as well, Orochimaru supposes, to have someone besides Anko and Naruto who doesn't cringe away from him, or glare with clear and obvious loathing. As little as Tenzō is in the village, his visits are never a burden, no matter what animosity was once between them.

"A free-for-all," he answers, shutting away temptation with a touch of regret, and looking towards where the youngest of their group is all but vibrating with excitement. "Naruto, as you were the last winner, I believe it's your turn to decide who will be it."

Tenzō arches a brow at this, but doesn't protest. Before Naruto can make his choice, though, Anko grins like a wolf and bounces on her heels. "Oh, oh! Why don't we play for stakes?" she suggests wickedly.

Naruto looks baffled. "Steak?" he repeats, brow furrowing. "If we're gonna play for something, we should make it ramen."

"Dummy!" Anko snaps, but before she can continue she catches sight of Orochimaru's raised brow and subsides with a disgruntled huff.

Orochimaru gives it another moment to be sure she's done, then explains, "She means play for a prize, Naruto. Like a bet. Say I win, I would ask for each of you to find me a new book. Tenzō would ask…?" He glances at the boy enquiringly.

The ANBU hums thoughtfully, tapping his chin, and then smiles eerily. "If I win, Anko has to kiss Gai. With tongue."

Anko splutters furiously, hand automatically going for a kunai. "Fuck you, tree-boy! I'm gonna split you open and dance on your spleen!"

Naruto glances back and forth between the bickering jounin, looking dubious. "Does my stakes have to be like that?" he asks, reaching up as if to grab for Orochimaru's sleeve again.

Safe several yards above him, Orochimaru shakes his head, and doesn't budge even when Naruto pouts at him. "'Stakes' is a plural word; treat it as such. They can be whatever you like, Naruto. That's the point of having stakes."

"Then I want ramen!" he decides. "Ugly, if I win, you and ANBU-guy have to buy me ramen every day for a month!"

Because she understands just how much ramen that really means, Anko goes a little pale. Still, since she's never been one to back down from a challenge, she spits back, "Fine! But if I win, brat, I get to take you shopping and pick a new outfit for you, with no orange at all."

Naruto's wail is both horrified and betrayed. "Never, hag! I'm definitely gonna win, so I'm keeping my jumpsuit and you're gonna have to buy me ramen forever!"

"You will not! Obviously I'm going to be better than a dumb brat like you!"

"Are not!"

"Are too!"

"Are—aagh! Stop pulling on my hair, you ugly old hag!"

"Ouch! Don't bite me, you rabid brat!"

"Then let go!"


Orochimaru sighs and presses a hand over his eyes. "Enough," he says sharply, and they both freeze. When he glares, Anko giggles innocently and releases Naruto's cheeks, and Naruto gives a sheepish grin as he unwraps himself from her leg. Orochimaru gives them another moment to be sure they're done, and says, "The terms are understood and accepted, then?" When no one protests—though Anko glares at both Tenzō and Naruto, and they both glare back—he waves a hand to hurry the matter along. "Naruto, who do you pick?"

"You, sensei!" Naruto beams up at him.

Well, that's certainly an acceptable outcome. Even though there has to be some measure of restraint due to Naruto's presence, this is still the closest Orochimaru gets to taking out his frustrations through violence. Tenzō and Anko are more than able to handle him the way he is now, as much as it grates, and he needn't hold back with them.

Orochimaru straightens, catching hold of a branch above his head to steady himself with. "Very well. Since I'm feeling generous today, I'll allow you a fifteen second head start."

"That's generous?" Tenzō asks skeptically, but Anko and Naruto, more experienced at this game, are already bolting for the forest, and Tenzō gives them one last, faintly dubious glance before he ducks behind a tree and seems to vanish completely.

Not Mokuton, Orochimaru judges, listening intently. There—the scuff of a sandal over old leaves. Even the best ANBU aren't entirely silent, if one knows how to listen for them. For a moment, Orochimaru contemplates ignoring him and going after Anko, who will doubtless be waiting impatiently. But curiosity drives him across the boughs, over the boy's hiding place; it's not often he gets to test himself against an ANBU, after all. Not anymore.

He leaps, one hand catching the rough bark of the tree and propelling himself around it. Tenzō is mid-movement, but unsurprised, and he ducks away from a kick that would have otherwise broken his collarbone. Orochimaru flips in midair to land on his feet, then lunges, and Tenzō just barely slides beneath the blow. An answering punch forces Orochimaru to dart back, knuckles skimming his jaw, and he pushes just enough chakra into his feet to stick to the trunk of the closest tree as he leaps upward, hoping to claim the high ground.

Clearly understanding that evasion and survival are the point of this game, Tenzō takes advantage of the opening, throwing himself back into the undergrowth. At the same moment, Anko hurtles out of the branches above Orochimaru, shrieking a war cry with glee clear on her face, and Orochimaru doesn't pause to find out what she has planned. He kicks off the tree, just a touch of chakra sending him arcing outward across the gap between the trunks, and he catches onto a branch just long enough to slow his fall. His feet hit the ground hard and he ducks forward into a roll, coming back to his feet and immediately dodging left, where a blur of orange is darting through the bushes.

Naruto yelps in surprise as Orochimaru's fingers skim the back of his jumpsuit, just close enough to be a warning, and he immediately leaps for the nearest tree, swarming up it with a skill he didn't possess even yesterday evening. Orochimaru marvels at the boy's ability to learn so quickly, but doesn't allow himself to pause as he jumps after him, bouncing off two thick branches to try and get ahead of him. Naruto sees him coming and ducks away, hurling himself off the limb and towards the ground. It's a move that, unpracticed, would leave most genin with broken bones or a concussion at the very least, but one of the very first things Orochimaru taught Naruto was how to use chakra to cushion his fall. Just as the Sannin did moments before, Naruto lands and immediately rolls to redirect momentum, then pops to his feet and bolts for cover.

Perhaps Anko is correct about the orange, Orochimaru thinks a touch absently, landing lightly on the ground and ghosting forward with every sense alert. It's a useful training tool, given how much extra stealth the boy needs to employ while wearing it, but without it—well. Naruto is not a genius like his father was, book-smart and hungry for knowledge, but his potential is unlike any Orochimaru has seen before. He learns quickly, once someone bothers to teach him in a way he can understand, and he has the will to push himself forward, to conquer any hurdles and learn whatever he's shown as quickly as possible. It reminds Orochimaru of himself, oddly.

I must be better. I must work harder. I must not give in, give up, give way. If you won't see me, I'll force you to acknowledge me.

Ambition like that is a dangerous thing, and Orochimaru knows it better than anyone.

Already, Naruto isn't quite the same boy he was before he pushed his way into their lives. One has to be vicious and unhesitating to keep up with Anko, after all, and Orochimaru himself has little patience for false pride. He's hardly about to insist on humility, but if Naruto wishes to brag, he had best be able to live up to his words. Between that and the particular ruthless, reckless edge to both Orochimaru and Anko's fighting styles, Naruto is learning ferocity. He's learning how to take his natural cunning and hone it, refine it, turn it into a blade.

Someday, Orochimaru thinks, smiling faintly, Naruto could be one of the terrors of the shinobi world, and Orochimaru only hopes to live long enough to see it.

He himself is a chained, muzzled mutt, no longer the wolf he once was. He's a cobra with blunted fangs, a hurricane trapped in a bottle, and given the chance, that is what Konoha will make Naruto. They'll take the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune, a natural disaster as old as the Sage of Six Paths himself, and they'll turn him into a tame little pet, content with whatever scraps of affection he's given.

That's the true crime, Orochimaru knows.

He lunges sideways, lashing out, and Anko yelps. She darts back, then flips right over his head and tries to sweep his legs out from under him as she lands. Orochimaru leaps over the kick, fingers stabbing at pressure points, but Anko spins away and ducks behind a tree. There's a yelp, a thud of bodies colliding with two voices raised in protest, and Orochimaru takes advantage, whirling in as Tenzō and Anko try to detangle themselves. A handful of kunai pin Anko to the trunk by her coat, while a solid kick to the stomach sends Tenzō to the ground. Orochimaru drags a fingernail over Anko's throat, taking her out of the game, and catches Tenzō's arm as the boy attacks and flips him over his shoulder.

Tenzō lands on his feet, slightly unsteady but still upright, and goes low, kunai slashing at Orochimaru's hamstrings. With the ease of years of practice, Orochimaru leaps backwards over the blow, lands on his hands, and springs back to his feet. There's a trio of kunai flying at him, aimed at his face—Naruto's work, not nearly as skilled as Anko's pinpoint aim but a definite improvement over the boy who could barely throw a kunai a year ago. Orochimaru ducks the first, plucks the second and third out of the air, and without pause flicks one straight at Tenzō's face. It clangs off his happuri faceguard, just close enough to his eye to prove a point, and Orochimaru spins without pausing, hurling the second weapon at the boy sneaking up behind him.

In the same instant, there's a snarl of pure, unadulterated rage. A wave of killing intent fills the forest as something slams bodily into Orochimaru. He yelps, even as the force of it hurls him back into a tree. When his spine hits, every last bit of air in his lungs is jarred free, and the impact makes spots of pain flare behind his eyes.

Instinct drives him sideways, away from the source of the sudden anger, but before he can make it more than a few yards there's a surge of chakra. Orochimaru spins, throwing up his arm, and a foot slams into it with sickening force. Something gives with a sharp snap, and a lance of red-hot pain makes Orochimaru stumble. He automatically shields his broken arm, spinning to the side to make himself a smaller target, and the next blow catches him square in the ribs. It's hard enough to send him flying again, crashing into another tree with a bone-jarring thud, and this time he can't manage to scramble to his feet as agony greys out his vision. There's no air in his lungs, no way to draw a breath, and he's too dazed to defend himself. All he can do is brace himself for the finishing blow and hope it's something quick.

And then Naruto cries, "NO!"

The killing intent flickers, wavers, and fades. "Get out of the way, kiddo," an achingly familiar voice says, dark with fury and an undertone of grief that makes Orochimaru want to spit in his face. "He's not the kind of person you should show mercy. He was about to—"

"Don't hurt sensei!" Naruto snarls, and a small body presses itself right in front of Orochimaru, attempting to shield him completely despite the difference in their sizes. "You bastard, leave him alone!"

"I agree," Tenzō says, polite but wary, and his soft footsteps approach to join Naruto. "Jiraiya-sama, I'm aware of how it appears, but I promise, there's nothing wrong. We were just playing a game."

Small, calloused hands curl around Orochimaru's shoulders, and Anko helps push him upright, careful of both his ribs and his arm. She doesn't whisper reassurances or try to tell him to breathe, because she knows better. And besides that, her eyes are fixed on the form Orochimaru can't quite bring himself to look at, looming across from them. Her pretty features are twisted into something hateful, and there's an unbridled kind of rage in her eyes that usually ends with vast amounts of blood on the ground.

Eight years now, and Orochimaru has always been so impossibly careful never to let her cross paths with Jiraiya. She's too much like he used to be, and he fears for her, because he knows exactly what she'll do. If Jiraiya takes even Anko from him—

Once upon a time, Orochimaru thought himself cold, distant, divorced. Thought he'd never need another to look at him with anything approaching kindness. Once he thought himself invincible, singular, standing atop the world and looking down. Oh, but what a difference eight years can make.

With that thought foremost in his mind, Orochimaru forces his chest to move, his lungs to work. His breath stutters as he inhales, and the pain is sharp and stabbing, but the oxygen is sweet. He turns his hand, catching Anko's wrist, and tightens his fingers, not aiming to hurt her so much as to make her notice. From the small flinch, she does, and half a heartbeat later pale brown eyes drop down to meet his gaze. Her mouth tightens into an unhappy slash, but she leans away a little, easing back, and Orochimaru carefully pushes himself up, keeping his broken arm tucked against his chest.

"Jiraiya," he says, and his voice is as bland as he can make it. "What a touching reunion of old friends. I had no idea you were back in the village."

"This geezer is your friend?!" Naruto bursts out, bristling with more protective fury than Orochimaru had ever thought could be contained in such a tiny body. "Sensei, he's not a good friend if he hurts you!"

At that, Orochimaru finally allows himself to glance up at his old teammate, just in time to see the barb strike home and bury itself deep. He wonders, desperately, distantly amused, how a child's vitriol can be so many magnitudes more painful than anyone else's, but there's no time for that. Jiraiya's dark eyes are narrowing, darting between Orochimaru and the three around him, and his mouth is pulled into a familiar stubborn line.

"Name-calling, Naruto," Orochimaru chides, because he is nothing if not petty and vengeful. He keeps most of his attention on Jiraiya, even as he reaches out with his good arm and touches Naruto's shoulder—not a far stretch, given how close to him the boy is pressed. "What's shinobi lesson number five?"

Naruto's expression takes on that particular mulish cast that means nothing and no one is going to stir him from this course, and Orochimaru knows from experience that trying isn't worth the headaches that will result. Even so, Naruto obediently recites, "Never be blatant when you can be subtle, unless you're making a threat, 'cause people will believe a 'splisit threat over a vague one."

"Explicit," Orochimaru corrects, not for the first time, and the faint edge of long-suffering in his tone isn't entirely for Jiraiya's benefit. Lesson five is one that Naruto has never really accepted; predictable, perhaps, given his bloodline. None of the Uzumaki Orochimaru has met have ever been even remotely good at subtle.

Apparently that's all Jiraiya's temper can stand. "Okay, kid, move," he orders. "Mitarashi, you too. Tenzō, I'm not sure how you got mixed up in all of this, but I'm going to give you the benefit of a doubt and assume you're being manipulated. You've got five seconds to get out of my way."

"I'd really prefer people stop jumping to conclusions about that," Tenzō says, and it sounds mostly mild, but there's a touch of steel beneath. "Jiraiya-sama—"

"You're gonna hurt him again!" Naruto accuses viciously. "But sensei is nice to me! He teaches me stuff and he feeds me ramen and he lets me sleep on his couch and he says I'm doing good in my shinobi training—"

At the same moment, Anko snarls, "Fuck you, you perverted geezer! As if I'd even think about moving! Take one step closer and I'll shove those fucking geta up your ass!"

"Enough," Orochimaru cuts in, pulling himself to his feet. He has to lean heavily on the tree to manage it, but at the very least he's standing. Jiraiya has a good twenty centimeters and thirty kilograms on him, but nothing leaves Orochimaru feeling as vulnerable as being sprawled on the ground while his former teammate looms over him. It brings back too many memories.

"But sensei—!" Naruto and Anko protest as one.

"No," Orochimaru says flatly. "Anko, take Naruto home. Tenzō, would you accompany them?"

From the twin stubborn stares Orochimaru is receiving from both of his apprentices, they're going to interpret 'home' as his apartment, and nothing he can say will sway them. Orochimaru raises a brow at them, telling them silently that he knows what they're planning, but if anything Naruto's expression just becomes more stubborn. He reaches out, aiming to grab Orochimaru's sleeve, then hesitates.

"Kid," Jiraiya says quietly, tiredly. "He'd just as soon kill you as train you. Go home."

It's so close to the words Jiraiya once breathed to him that Orochimaru can't stop a faint flinch. "Go, Anko!" he snaps, and equal measures of hurt and rage add venom to his voice.

Anko spins to shoot him a wild-eyed glare, furious and terrified and determined all at once, then snatches the seven-year-old up in her arms and throws herself into the trees, disappearing from sight in an instant. Tenzō glances between Orochimaru and Jiraiya, then bobs his head a little awkwardly and follows at a slower pace.

Orochimaru shifts slightly, pushing himself up a little straighter even though he doesn't step away from the oak behind him, and grits his teeth as his arm throbs with pain. His enhanced healing means nothing with his chakra bound, and it aggravates him to know that he once could have reset the bone in an instant but will now have to rely on some unknown medic to do it for him. There's little that Orochimaru likes less than helplessness.

"A game," Jiraiya says flatly.

Aggravation lashes through him, sinking down to his bones, and Orochimaru traps a hiss behind his teeth. "Yes," he agrees shortly. "We play tag. The boy knows how to catch a kunai, or I wouldn't have thrown it at him."

Despite himself, despite all logic, he looks up. Looks at Jiraiya for the first time in over two years, and hates that he still feels something twist inside of him. Jiraiya betrayed him, caged him, collared him. Orochimaru loathes him, but—

But. There's always with but with Jiraiya, isn't there?

Jiraiya is still the most handsome man Orochimaru has ever seen, still has the ability to make him want, and maybe Orochimaru hates him for that just as much as the seals. He's never liked being denied, and Jiraiya's denial outstrips all others by a landslide.

Geta rustle the leaf-litter as Jiraiya takes two steps forward. "Sensei knows about this?"

Orochimaru snorts. "Who do you think saddled me with the brat the first time?" he demands waspishly, straightening too fast, and can't quite manage to hide a flinch when he jars his arm.

There's a long moment of silence and then a soft sigh. "Damn it. I'm sorry, Orochimaru. Let me look at that."

"And lose it completely? I'll go to the hospital, thank you. At least the medics there have some small idea what they're doing," Orochimaru snaps, and it's the truth. He will go. Just as soon as he's sure he can stand without falling over.

"Don't be a stubborn idiot," Jiraiya huffs, and an instant later a strong arm curls around his waist, careful not to bump his arm or his ribs. "This is my fault. Let me at least get you to the hospital if you won't let me fix it. I don't want that hellcat apprentice of yours gutting me in my sleep."

Orochimaru will never, ever admit that it makes walking easier. He looks away, and says disdainfully, "Anko wouldn't. She'd wake you up first so that you knew exactly who was murdering you."

"Just like someone else I know." Jiraiya's tone is caught between anger, frustration, fondness, and an old, tired hate. He sighs, and asks, "What the hell are you doing with Minato's kid, Orochimaru? If you're looking to get back at me—"

"Despite your longstanding misconceptions, the world does not in fact revolve solely around you, Jiraiya," Orochimaru bites out. "The boy came to me, and turning him away was more trouble than it was worth. Besides, he distracts Anko well enough to give me at least a few moments of peace."

Jiraiya stops, just a handful of paces from the fence, and steps away, turning to face Orochimaru squarely. The look on his face is grim, with an undertone of disbelief. "You really expect me to believe that? If that kid had even the faintest idea what you've done—"

"Because Tenzō's presence means nothing?" Orochimaru scoffs. "Naruto knows. I told him the day we met, and I was hardly about to spare his delicate sensibilities when I shared that information. So by all means, try to drive him away by telling him. I look forward to seeing him throw it back in your face."

"Damn it, Orochimaru!" Jiraiya slams his fist into the trunk of a tree, sending a shower of leaves cascading down on their heads. "Don't give me that bullshit! If this is some elaborate scheme, just drop it! You're not going to escape!"

On blind impulse, Orochimaru punches him. His knuckles immediately start to sting and ache, but Jiraiya goes reeling back with a yelp, clutching his nose, and that makes the pain entirely worth it.

"You think I don't know that?" he hisses furiously. "You think I'm unaware? I know just how much of a prisoner I am, Jiraiya! And it is your fault!"

"I'm not the one who experimented on children!" Jiraiya roars, finding his feet and stalking forward again to loom over him. "Fuck, Orochimaru, I always knew there was something wrong about you, but even you should have known better!"

It feels like being stabbed, like being stripped of his chakra all over again. Orochimaru drags a shaking breath in between his teeth, blind with fury, aching like his chest has been hollowed out and filled with acid. "Wrong?" he repeats, deadly-soft. "Oh yes. You always knew, didn't you, Jiraiya? What a good little martyr, taking one for the team. Is that why you got close to me, hm?" This time he's the one to step forward, reaching out with his good hand to skim his fingers lightly, teasingly over Jiraiya's lips. He leans in, eyes narrowing, and breathes, "How do I disgust you? How do you feel, knowing you've kissed a murderer, a monster? How does it feel knowing how low you brought me, all because I believed those pretty little lies you spun, even when I should have known better?"

Jiraiya's eyes are as hard as flint, his expression one of barely-contained anger. "Don't pin this on me, Orochimaru," he says dangerously. "Don't you dare. It was your doing. You're the one who got yourself into this situation. Danzō didn't control you. You could have said no. But you didn't. You were so damnably curious, so goddamn full of yourself, that you just had to try playing god. And children died. You murdered them. After that? Yes. Yes, you make me sick."

Orochimaru laughs, dark and wild, because the only other option is to cry, and he will never let Jiraiya see him that weak. Never again. "Oh yes, how could I forget? The gallant Jiraiya, savior of orphans. You looked the other way for so long, how was I to know that something would change? Prisoners of war matter nothing, missing-nin mean even less. A thousand times I walked that line before I finally stepped over it, was told to step over it; how was I to know that would be the one time you would care? I am what I have always been, Jiraiya. It's your own fault for not seeing it."

Monster, that little voice whispers in his ear, but Orochimaru knows it all too well. He lifts his chin, turns away, and manages to keep his feet steady beneath him as he strides across the spongy ground and through the gate that stands ajar. Vaguely, he wishes he had the chakra for a shunshin, to make it an appropriately quick and dramatic exit, but it doesn't matter. Jiraiya is just standing there, not even moving, much less chasing after him.

One foot in front of the other, and Orochimaru doesn't allow himself to look back.

The broken arm is easily healed—it's an injury common for shinobi. Orochimaru endures the stares, the hatred, the fear, even as he seethes with fury. Not dark and deep, for once, but white-hot and trapped just beneath his skin. A wildfire in the wind, rather than a drowning sea. The anger is familiar, simple; almost half a century now Jiraiya has inspired it in him. Only recently to these levels, true, but he and Jiraiya have never fit easily together. They are not two pieces made to match, not sword and sheath, but…well.

Orochimaru smiles humorlessly, easing open the door of his apartment. The very first thing that comes to mind is the question of the irresistible force and the immovable object, though he couldn't quite say which is which. And beyond that, he himself is not so immovable now, with these seals to bind him.

His breath catches at the thought—not a new one, not in the least, but raw right now. The scabs have been torn off, the bleeding heart of the wound laid bare, and Orochimaru pauses in the main room, staring down at his hands. Pale and thin, callused from weapons and deadly even without, but for a moment he sees nothing of himself. There are only the seals, wide, thick bands of black that twist across the skin.

Orochimaru's breath comes faster, harder, though his head feels light. Some desperate impulse drives his fingers to the ties of his robe, yanking them open, and the moment he can get it over his head he wrenches the garment off, flinging it aside and sending a lamp crashing to the floor. The fishnet shirt he wears beneath follows, and Orochimaru drags his fingers over the uncovered marks, nails scraping skin hard enough to leave stinging scratches behind. Up his arms the seals march, inexorable, unending, and Orochimaru follows them down his chest, large and bold. Jiraiya's hand, marked across him until there's more black ink than pale skin. They wrap around him, more confining than any physical bonds could ever be, and Orochimaru snarls in wordless rage. He presses his fingers over the anchor seal that rests above his heart, digs in with his nails until blood seeps around his fingers and tracks down his chest.

They won't come off. They'll never come off, not unless a little boy who's just as much of an outcast as Orochimaru himself can win the seat that Orochimaru once coveted. And even then that will be years in the future—so many years, so long, each one creeping by like an eternity while Orochimaru stands still, trapped and caged and—

He screams, rage and impotent hate a maelstrom inside him, and lashes out. Drops of blood splatter the walls as he spins, kicking the closest chair across the room. It's a moment of release, a second of mindless destruction, so Orochimaru does it again, grabbing onto one of the old, rickety chairs and hurling it with all of his strength. It crashes into a bookshelf and breaks, pieces falling, but Orochimaru doesn't pause to watch. He snatches up whatever comes to hand, beats his fists against what won't break, tears his nails across his own skin so that all he can see is red instead of black.

When he can see past the fury, when he's finally too exhausted to so much as raise his arms again, he stands in the center of a field of destruction. There is little left whole, and Orochimaru doesn't care to find if there's anything beyond what he can see. He takes a shuddering breath, another, a third, and this time when it escapes it sounds very like a sob. With a low, choked scream he staggers back, shoulders thumping against the wall, and then slides down it. Listing forward, he drops his head against his knees, wrapping his arms around the back of his head, and laughs.

The sound tears at his throat, scratching at the inside of his chest the way his fingernails did against his skin, and it hurts, aches. There's blood in his hair, on his skin, and his fingers are raw and scraped. His head is pounding, throbbing, but his ears are ringing emptily and he can't settle even a single coherent thought. There's nothing, nothing at all.

And then there's something, because the door creaks open, and half an instant later Anko gasps, "Sensei!" She's echoed by another cry, wordless this time, and something hits the floor. Before Orochimaru can even raise his head, there's a body on either side of him, pushing in close. Anko on his left, fingers ghosting over long welts and deep scratches even as she wraps an arm around his waist. Naruto on his right, small hands clutching at his hair, the boy's cheek pressing against his shoulder.

"Sorry, sensei," Anko whispers, dropping her head against his. Violet hair spills down over his bleeding arms, tickles his battered hands even as it spreads the faint scent of earth and leaves around him, and Orochimaru takes a shuddering breath that actually fills his lungs. "Sorry, I'm so sorry we weren't here, but you were taking a while and the squirt and I wanted to get you some egg custard, so we went out and—I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Did that old geezer do this?" Naruto demands. "'Cause Anko-nee an' I can take him. I think Tenzō'd help us, too. He was really worried, sensei. I was really worried, an'—and if that bastard geezer guy broke your stuff me and Anko-nee 'll go and break him."

Entirely despite himself, Orochimaru laughs. It's low and rough, but it doesn't feel like it's going to break him, and Orochimaru uncurls himself, raising his head. One arm slides down to curl around Anko in return, while the other tugs Naruto into his lap as he shifts to sit cross-legged. Naruto leans against him, all too happy to accept the affection, while Anko drops her head on his shoulder and wraps a hand around his wrist. The press of their bodies is a simple, animal sort of comfort, one Orochimaru has never indulged in before, but the haze of darkness is sliding away from his thoughts, and he can finally think clearly.

"No," he says after a moment. "No, Naruto, this was my doing. I was just—"

Just what? Even he isn't entirely sure. Angry, terrified, hopeless, hurt, grieving—all of it is true, but all of it is wrong as well. He simply doesn't know.

"Okay," Naruto says easily, so accepting of anything. "Is your arm okay now, sensei?"

"It was only a simple break," Orochimaru confirms. "The medics healed it easily." He glances around, taking in the destruction, and sighs tiredly. "Egg custard, you said?"

"From that place you used to like, sensei." Anko twists her head to smile up at him through her hair. There are streaks of his blood marking the dark strands, but she doesn't seem to notice, or care if she does. "Naruto and I bought as much as we could carry. Do you want some?"

Orochimaru glances at her, then down to where wide blue eyes are staring up at him, full of concern and a strange sort of adoration that he thought only Anko could hold for him. He smiles, just a little, and lets them go to sit up straighter.

"Yes," he says. "I think that sounds just about right." And it is, surprisingly, the perfect truth.

Orochimaru wakes to morning sunlight slipping through the windows of his bedroom, to a soft mattress beneath him and an apprentice curled up on each side of him. Anko is tucked under one arm, her own thrown across his stomach, and her hair flutters over her face with each breath. Naruto has his head resting on Orochimaru's chest, limbs sprawled everywhere, snoring softly, but one hand is fisted in black hair and even in sleep the stubborn slant to his mouth is obvious.

For a long moment, Orochimaru simply lies there, head empty of all thoughts, staring down at the two. It's…strange. For so long he's held himself apart except for Anko, and now another child has wriggled in beneath his disinterest and made himself at home. And they've both stayed, which is something Orochimaru never would have expected upon meeting them. Such stubbornness is laudable, but their tenacity goes beyond even what he had expected.

Carefully, Orochimaru eases himself upright, resettling Naruto against the pillow and edging Anko's head off of his arm. He doesn't move beyond that, though, simply sits there for a long moment, watching them sleep. Two apprentices, eerily alike, and strangely similar to him as well. By all rights they should hate him, should have left him long ago, but instead they've given their loyalty. They stepped in front of Jiraiya yesterday, put themselves in danger for him, and…he's not entirely sure what to think.

No. No, that's a lie, isn't it?

He looks at Anko, so fierce and wild, more like his own blood than anyone he's ever met. Sometimes he watches her and thinks of his mother, tall and proud, with a wide, hungry smile and a bloodthirstiness that terrified even her allies. Anko isn't quite the lady she was off the battlefield, but…his mother would have loved her. Would have called Anko her granddaughter without hesitation. She would have done the same for Naruto, too. Even beyond her friendship with Uzumaki Mito, a prankster boy with wounded eyes and a careless grin would have appealed to her.

She would have liked them, he thinks to himself. Would have liked this little family he's stumbled his way into.

That thought is entirely new, and just as unexpected. Orochimaru can't remember the last time he dwelt on his mother, thought of her smile and her golden eyes rather than her death and a cold gravestone. And what, he wonders, would she think of him? What would Tsunade? What would Nawaki?

He's considered it before, but…perhaps not seriously. Always with an edge of anger at the rest of the world, and right now he can't conjure that emotion. It's blunted by the warm light, by the children sleeping beside him, and never, ever would Orochimaru have entertained the notion that he was softening, but what other term could be applicable here? A year and a half of Naruto on his heels has made him something just slightly different than he was before.

He wondered, once before, if it was possible to regret a path without regretting the steps he took along it. Now he finds that it is, because if he had things to do over—

Well. He's not entirely certain what he would do. Maybe he would walk a different path. Maybe he would make different choices. There's no telling, really. But…

He takes a breath and lets it out, careful and slow. Thinks of loyalty, of devotion, of three small children with the world laid out at their feet, the future bright before them, and how their vision of happiness shattered so utterly as to leave only dust in their hands. One gone, never to return. One lost to regret and grief, wandering without an anchor. And the last, the last—

What is his path now? Where does he turn from here? Eight years he's survived on bitterness and rage, darkness clinging to his thoughts, revenge and spite his only motivations. Now those are all burned away in the morning light, but for the first time in many, many years, he doesn't feel empty. Instead, there's a curious knot in his chest, tendrils of something twisted through his lungs. Each breath feels like a step forward, skirting the very edges of shadow, and Orochimaru wonders what has changed.

Except that he knows, doesn't he?

He reaches down, smooths his fingers over violet hair and then bright gold. Naruto promised to free him, once the Hokage's hat is his. It seems like a fable, a fantasy, the hated outcast overcoming all the misconceptions to stand above them all, to reveal a soul so bright and pure that the only thing he can be called is a hero. Tripe, Orochimaru would dismiss it as, reading it in one of Jiraiya's books. Romantic idiocy, not even worth the paper and ink used to write it down.

But give the hero a shadow. Make him cunning and stubborn and scrappy, with a penchant for tricks and a wild recklessness that never entirely overwhelms him, and…maybe that's the kind of figure stories are truly written about. Maybe that's a figure who isn't worthless. Who can live up to a promise.

Maybe that's the kind of figure Orochimaru wouldn't mind helping towards his goal.

Loyalty, he thinks, and looks down at the two children. He's never given it, not really. To his team, briefly, but there was always an undercurrent of anger. To Jiraiya, for a while, but now he looks back on it and wonders if anything between them was real. To Konoha, abstractly, but that died when he was shackled.

Perhaps loyalty shouldn't be a decision made, a choice between two paths. Perhaps it should happen naturally, easily, but then Orochimaru has never been one to walk the usual path. This is his choice, because it will be interesting, because it's the best of a handful of options. Because he can, and there's nothing better to do, and…

And because he can recognize the loyalty in Naruto and Anko, and he has nothing else to give them in return. Nothing besides training, besides his own unpracticed allegiance, but it will have to be enough. Orochimaru will make it enough.

He slips from between them, sliding off the bed smoothly enough that he doesn't disturb either apprentice, and looks down at himself in the morning sunlight. There's still dried blood streaked across his skin, over the black lines of the seals, but he doesn't feel the burning, twisting hatred that consumed him yesterday. Just…weariness, edged with a new sort of careless disregard.

It's a choice, clear and steady, not to reach for his choking, concealing robes. Orochimaru opens his closet, pushes aside the voluminous masses of cloth, and instead pulls out one of his old robes, long unused. Grey, so pale as to be almost white, with violet edging and black tomoe markings on the hems, tied with a lavender sash. The sleeves are slightly longer than the rest of his old clothes, but wide, and between the fall of the sleeves and the wide neckline, he might as well put the seals carved into his skin on display.

For the first time in eight years, Orochimaru can't bring himself to care. Let people stare; let them see. He is nothing more or less than what he has ever been, and they will not change him. He's bowed to their fear for too long as it is, and it disgusts him. It's time he shows them just why the Hokage kept him alive, why he wasn't locked away like Danzō was. He's useful, dangerous, cunning, brilliant. He's a viper, and they might have trapped him behind glass, but their chains become meaningless if he chooses to stay. And really, how simple, to rip the shackles from their hands, to stand before them on his own terms.

Jiraiya might be right in saying he has no way to escape. But he'll press the key to his collar into Naruto's hands, train him until the highest honor in the village is his for the taking, and then Orochimaru will be free. Free on his terms, rather than theirs, and that will be enough. Naruto will have his loyalty, because of a promise if nothing else, and Orochimaru won't go back on his word. Not when the results promise endless amusement, watching the village pariah become its savior.

When he emerges into the main room, shutting the bedroom door quietly behind him, it's to a surprising lack of destruction. There are still bits and pieces everywhere, but they've been gathered, pushed into piles of salvageable and unsalvageable material, the paths between them neatly swept. In the middle of it all sits Tenzō, three books on carpentry spread out around him and a frown of concentration on his face.

"As it turns out," the ANBU says without looking up, "bed rest is incredibly boring when you're not catatonic."

Orochimaru snorts softly, picking his way around the piles. He feels a moment of faint regret when he comes across the shards of his favorite lamp, but it's quickly dismissed in favor of his curiosity. "You saw the medics?"

Tenzō hums in confirmation. "A cold," he says, faintly dismayed. "The Hokage extended my leave to three weeks so I would have ample time to recover. But I'm fine."

"I'm sure," Orochimaru murmurs noncommittally, with a touch of a smirk. "Tea?"

"Coffee?" Tenzō asks hopefully, glancing up, and at the sight of Orochimaru's expression sighs in resignation. "Tea," he confirms. "Thank you."

Orochimaru inclines his head, picking his way over to the kitchen. There's no trace of his bout of destruction here, which is a relief, and he sets the kettle to boil as he starts preparing the pot. "May I ask what you're attempting to do, Tenzō?"

"I've told you that I can make houses with my Mokuton?" Tenzō asks. When Orochimaru makes a sound of agreement, he explains, "They're usually empty, but making furniture should be a similar process. Since you cleaned house last night, I figured I could give you the results of my experiments."

It's carefully phrased, deliberately framed—not a favor, not a gift, just happenstance, handily convenient. Orochimaru smiles a little to himself, shaking his head, and says, "I'm grateful. Thank you, Tenzō."

There's a long moment of silence, as though Tenzō can't decide how to respond, and then he clears his throat. "You're welcome. Er…all healed up?"

"More or less." Jiraiya's blows are, at least; Orochimaru isn't about to mention the self-inflicted ones. He'll need a shower to get the last of the blood off, but it can wait until after his first cup of tea.

They linger in silence until the kettle whistles, and then Orochimaru pours the water, collects two cups, and carries the pot out into the main room. Since the table is in pieces and the chairs are little more than splinters, he settles cross-legged on the floor across from Tenzō and fills both cups. Tenzō takes one, swallowing the smoky black tea with an expression of faint appreciation, and then pushes one of the books towards Orochimaru. "I'm not sure about the joints. Do you think it would be better to grow them like this, and then fit them together, or as one solid piece?"

Orochimaru leans over to check the illustration he's pointing at, dismissing all thoughts beyond the question, and lets himself settle fully into the moment, awake and more or less at peace.

For now, this is enough. This is all he needs.

He walks on the main street to the market, head up, chin lifted, shoulders straight. His seals are all but bare in the slanting evening light, hands uncovered. Let them see his tells, he thinks, and doesn't care. He never did, before, and he won't let himself become a shrinking, beaten beast just because they've collared him. Not anymore. Not again.

Anko is ahead of him, scanning for dango, and Naruto is bouncing around her feet, heckling her whenever he's safely out of reach. Her annoyance just barely covers up her amusement as she swats and stabs at him, casually violent in a way that has the crowd parting around her. There are whispers, aimed at both Naruto and himself, but Orochimaru pays them little heed. If they want to call him a monster, let them. He is the monster that once saved them, that fought two wars for them, and he was never alone in his betrayal of their precious morals. Let them remember that it was Danzō who provided him with subjects, that their devoted elder was the one who urged him forward. Let them remember that Orochimaru is a monster, yes, but he is their monster, made by their hands.

Let them see that the other monster they've created is nothing more than a little boy, just seven years old, harrying the girl who might as well be his older sister. That she, too, is another monster as bloodthirsty as Orochimaru himself.

They are monsters, all of them, but human too. For every moment of disgust and horror, let them see that and mark it well.

There is a shadow at the edge of the street, just a step outside of the light. Orochimaru glances over, and his eyes catch on Jiraiya's broad figure. Jiraiya stares back, and for the first time Orochimaru truly sees the regret in his eyes, the edge of helpless anger, and he can't help but wonder how long it's been there. Always, or is it new? Did their confrontation in the forest spark it, or was it the cause, rather than the consequence?

How many of Jiraiya's insults, how many of his words were influenced by his pain?

Orochimaru holds his dark gaze for a long moment, caught in the center of the crowd as it shifts and parts around him. Up ahead, Naruto is shrieking with laughter as Anko screeches angrily, but the air between himself and Jiraiya is strangely still, suspended. It feels like eternity is trapped between them, held for just a moment, and Orochimaru takes a breath of spring air and deliberately inclines his head.

It's a greeting, an acknowledgement, something he hasn't offered in eight years, and at the sight of it something in Jiraiya's face shifts. His hard expression wavers, slides away, but before it can settle Orochimaru turns back to his apprentices and keeps walking.

Eight years he's spent hating Jiraiya with each breath, hating him just as much as he once loved him, but things are changing now. The world moves forward, and Orochimaru is no longer stuck fast, held in place by his resentment and his fury. There is a path open before him, and this is one step forward along it, following behind a boy whose shadow stretches long in the sunlight. He follows Naruto, for his own sake, for Anko's, for the boy's.

If Jiraiya wishes to walk the same path, let him catch up on his own. Orochimaru won't wait for him.

But maybe, just perhaps, he'll leave enough space for someone to walk beside him.